In a new submission, the Australian Institute of Employment Rights (AIER) calls on the federal government to take preventative steps to stop poor workplace health injuring workers, and argues that the single biggest contribution it can make to preventative health is to invest in cultural reform of the Australian workplace.

The following is a summary of the submission.

The 20/20 Summit recognised that Australia needs a long-term health strategy focussing on prevention, rather than the current health budget focus on reaction. The National Hospitals and Health Reform Commission has called for a new health system founded upon prevention and early intervention. The single greatest investment the federal government can make in preventative health and early intervention is to invest in cultural reform of Australian workplaces. More people die from stroke or heart attack between 9am and 11am on Monday morning than at any other time in the week. This is because of work-related psychological and physical factors, which lead to a significant effect of stress during this time.

Poor workplace culture is recognised as a key risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death for Australians, affecting over 3.2 million people. Workplace stress, conflict and other negative byproducts of poor workplace culture are responsible for the proliferation of mental illness affecting one in five Australians. Health problems such as obesity, alcoholism, depression and drug addiction stem, in part, from poor workplace culture and can be improved through better workplace culture.

Instead of being a world leader in people management, Australia is lagging behind on major indicators of workplace culture according to international benchmarks. Bullying and unfair treatment, which are recognised as existing in Australian schools, are not isolated to the schoolyard but permeate the workplaces of some of Australia’s otherwise most respected businesses. Improving workplace culture is key to the success and profitability of domestic businesses, and the international competitiveness of the Australian economy overall. Workplace culture is a critical aspect of corporate social responsibility, a prerequisite for being a recipient of responsible investment and Australia’s role as an international ’employer’, ‘educator’ and ‘business partner’ of choice.

The Fair Work Act 2009 and the establishment of the Preventative Health Taskforce are two steps in the right direction. In building upon these developments, the federal government should adopt a National Accreditation System aimed at facilitating cultural reform of Australian workplaces. A National Accreditation System will provide impetus for workplace cultural reform, education on the importance of culture to preventative health and assist all Australian businesses to become genuine sites of ‘fair work’. The National Accreditation System should be underpinned by the Australian Standard of Employment Rights, which is a yardstick for measuring and improving workplace culture.

AIER has called on the government to provide seed funding to support the establishment of a National Centre for Workplace Partnerships. This body would administer the Accreditation System and promote cultural reform of Australian workplaces. The federal government should use the Standard in their role as an employer, in procuring government contracts and in educating all Australians. In the likely event that improvements in workplace culture resulting from the National Accreditation System is proven to reduce the health budget, the federal government should provide tax incentives for businesses who achieve accreditation.

AIER Preventative Health and Workplace Culture submission