HEMLATA HUNMA Attorney at Law & RAJENDRA PATIL HUNMA HR Consultant & Leadership Coach
If someone fractures his ankle while at work, his employer is required by law (OSHA S.85) to formally report the matter to the Director, Occupational Safety and Health. On the other hand, if someone suffers from complications resulting from excessive work-related stress and is hos- pitalised for a week, no such reporting is required. And yet the second scenario is probably more frequent in today’s workplace.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) 2005 provides a legal framework to a basic obligation of the employer to “ensure the safety, health and welfare at work of all his employees” (OSHA S.5). The stated objective of the OSHA 2005 is to “consolidate and widen the scope of legislation on safety, health and the welfare of employees at work”.
A cursory reading of the various sec- tions of the OSHA would reveal that it focuses mainly on the physical aspects of the work environment – ventilation, cleanliness, overcrowding, etc (Part IV), machinery (Part V), electricity, fire, chemicals, etc (Part VI), noise, radiation, protective equipment, etc (Part VII). It would appear that OSHA is mainly concerned with the manufacturing / construction sector, and with blue collar / factory floor workers, than with those working in offices or those at supervisory / management levels. In fact, it has a full section dedicated to factories (Part VIII). It is worth noting that many of the OSHA-related judgments have to do with establishing employers’ negligence in work-related accidents, or employers’ failure to ensure the implementation of relevant safety measures.
The relevance of the OSHA is unquestionable. However, we need to bear in mind that the number of people currently employed in the tertiary sector (wholesale / retail trade, ICT and other services) is more than twice the number employed in the primary (agriculture, fishing, etc) and the secondary (manufacturing, construction, etc) sectors combined. Considering that the kind of occurrences covered by the OSHA would be rare in the tertiary sector where the majority of the working population is employed, there is a strong case for ensu- ring that the health and welfare of this segment are adequately safeguarded.
One would concede that the physical aspects of the work environment are important. However, there is a mental health dimension which needs to be also taken into account because it has a significant impact on physical health and because it affects employees across all three sectors. In fact, it may be argued that mental health requires more attention, because its potential impact on overall health is stealthy, though equally deadly. More importantly, mental health- related problems affect not only the employees but also their relationships with people close to them.
There are numerous possible causes for excessive work-related stress which underlie many mental health problems. We shall however discuss only two of them.
These are present in all types of organisations. Some of them are even valued by their superiors because they are good at producing short-term results even if it is to the detriment of the long-term organisational and personal health. These are people who generally adopt a command-and-control style, and have a total disregard for human dignity and self- respect. They tend to micromanage and their idea of motivation is restricted to a carrot and stick approach. They would not hesitate to use bullying tactics, play favourites and even adopt unfair means to boost short-term results. This includes lying, cheating in the computation of overtime / performance related pay and unwillingness to invest in training and development. They are ruthless and self- serving power seekers who believe that employee welfare amounts to nothing more than the annual picnic (a.k.a. team building) and the end-of-year party, if any. They are like car drivers who drive only in first gear. While this initially produces results, it often ends up with a burnt engine.
In many organisations, the annual budget exercise involves a ritualistic forecast of an ambitious increase in revenue over the previous year to result in higher profits. The idea is to please owners/shareholders with a promise of bigger dividends. And to make the
picture rosier, this forecast is usually accompanied by cost-cutting measures. These would range from the elimination of certain employee benefits, reduc- tion of training expenses, reduction in investment on equipment and software, to outright reduction of workforce. The goal is paradoxically to achieve more with less. While this may work initially, it often results in excessively long hours, stress and burn-out.
Toxic bosses and unrealistic targets generate chronic stress which results in fight and flight responses, high cortisol levels and a weakened immunity system which increases the vulnerability to a wide range of illnesses. And yet work-related stress complications are not included in the List of Notifiable Occupational Diseases (OSHA, Sche- dule 14) even though they affect a large number of employees and their families. By extension, employers are not held accountable for these problems.
The solution, however, does not lie in including mental health within the scope of OSHA (for reasons that lie beyond the purview of this article), but in educating employers about the impact that a toxic management style can have on their employees’ health and ultimately on organisational performance. Employees, on the other hand, need to learn how to deal with toxic bosses. They also need to know what to do in situations that have started to have a negative impact on their health before it is too late. This includes maintaining a journal documenting details (dates, times, what was said and done) of critical incidents, keeping copies of relevant emails, job descriptions, performance feedback, etc. All this information would be useful in case the employee decides to lodge a civil suit to claim damages, or even make a case for constructive dismissal – that is, when an employee resigns as a result of the employer creating a hostile work environment.