PM's driven work-ethic a health-risk

Wendy Macdonald

(First broadcast as an ABC Radio National Perspective piece on 4 June 2008)

According to Maria Hawthorne (AAP, May 29, 2008), Kevin Rudd has been nicknamed '24/7' "for his long working hours and relentless demands on staffers. Ministerial and departmental staff begin work before 7am and work well into the night, often beyond 10pm". And according to the Community and Public Sector Union: "People are … subject to massive workloads and ridiculous deadlines … something is going to have to give."

Mr Rudd, on the other hand, says: "I understand that … some public servants are finding the hours a bit much. Well … – there'll be more. … The work ethic of this Government will not decrease. It will increase." Although some of his later statements have been intended to de-fuse the situation, he has not retracted his earlier assertions and seems to be unaware of his legal duties according to the Commonwealth Occupational Health and Safety Act, 1991.

Section 16 of the Act states that employers are in contravention of this Act if they "fail to take all reasonably practicable steps" to provide and maintain "a working environment (including plant and systems of work)" that is safe and without risk to employees' health. Meaning of a safe "system of work" depends on the nature of the work, but it clearly includes organizing jobs and workloads so that they do not present any threat to workers' health.

This is being increasingly recognised within our legal system when 'stress claims' go to court. For example, a South Australian Supreme Court judge recently awarded a large compensation payment to a school teacher based partly on the finding that he was "clearly overworked", and that it was reasonably foreseeable that his health might suffer as a consequence.

Such legal rulings are based on a huge amount of evidence that workers who experience chronically high levels of stress are at significantly higher risk of developing a wide range of stress-related illnesses. These illnesses are not confined to psychological disorders; two other common examples of stress-related health problems are cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal disorders.

The work-related causes of chronic stress – which are sometimes referred to as psychosocial hazards – have also been clearly established by researchers. As well as excessive workload, these include inadequate control. People need to have control over their own work – enough freedom and flexibility to manage their own work performance efficiently and satisfyingly. They also need good support – particularly from supervisors or managers, but also from their co-workers. Support includes provision of good information, equipment and so on, as well as social or emotional support, depending on the situation. People also need to feel that their work performance is up to the required standard, which requires clarity about what exactly is expected of them, along with performance feedback. Finally, people need to feel that their efforts are appreciated. When there is a perceived imbalance between the effort people put in and the 'rewards' they receive for this (not necessarily financial), stress-related problems increase.

Prime Ministers and their senior colleagues inevitably have huge workloads, which are likely to often require 'burning the midnight oil', but their high levels of control, easy availability of support (in practical terms, if not social) and high rewards (psychologically, if not financially) mean that, overall, their stress levels should be manageable. However, this is not necessarily the case for their staff, whose 'control' is considerably lower. It is entirely unreasonable for a manager to argue that staff must – routinely - 'burn the midnight oil'. From time to time staff may choose to work in this way, but this cannot routinely be imposed on them without increasing the risk of stress-related health problems.

And the effects of stress will be exacerbated if people are highly fatigued. No one – no matter how clever, competent and self-disciplined they might be – has the capacity to maintain optimal performance quality when they are highly fatigued. In safety-critical jobs such as those of airline pilots, this has long been recognised by imposing strict limits on working hours. More recently, the need for such restrictions has also been recognised by the medical profession.

Kevin Rudd's evident lack of concern for the negative effects of excessive workloads – not only on his staff but on himself – suggests that he is simply unaware of the risks. In the case of his duty as a manager, ignorance of the law is not an adequate legal defence. And in his own case, Australians have a right to expect that he will manage his workload – and related fatigue – so that he can perform at his best.