The Australian Institute of Employment Rights (AIER) undertook a considerable body of research exploring the links between poor workplace culture and its detrimental effect on the physical and mental health of working people.  The study, which formed the basis of a submission to government, found that the greatest investment the Australian Government can make in preventative health is in cultural reform of Australian workplaces.

The following is a summary of the key findings of AIER’s research and our key proposal for change.

More people die from stroke or heart attack between 9am and 11am on Monday morning than at any other time in the week, the direct result 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, the leading cause of death for Australians, affecting over 3.2 million people. Mental illness, which affects one-in-five Australians, and health problems such as obesity, alcoholism, depression and drug addiction, stem in part from workplace stress, conflict and other negative byproducts of poor 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, recognised as existing in Australian schools, also 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.

AIER calls for a national investment in workplace culture. This provides a unique opportunity for Australia to become an ‘International Employer of Choice’ and will also improve the profitability of Australian businesses, and the international competitiveness of the Australian economy overall.

At the 20/20 Summit it was recognised that only 1% of Australia’s health budget focuses on preventative health, as the vast bulk of health resources are geared to react to health problems when they arise. We note that the government has since established the Preventative Health Taskforce which has largely focused on the health challenges arising from obesity, drugs and alcohol.

We believe that the greatest investment the Australian Government can make in preventative health is in cultural reform of Australian workplaces. The current focus of the Preventative Health Taskforce is too narrow and falls into the trap of dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause. Whilst obesity, alcohol and drug consumption are each legitimate health problems in their own right, numerous studies have documented relationships between working conditions, including job stress, safety risks, and exposure to hazardous substances, and health behaviours, such as smoking, sedentary behaviour, poor diet and alcohol consumption.

By addressing poor workplace culture as the root of other health problems, the government will be preventing Australians from developing coping mechanisms associated with poor workplace culture such as through food, drug and alcohol addictions and other unhealthy lifestyle behaviours.

The recently released Final Report of the National Hospitals and Health Reform Commission called for the health system to become ‘everybody’s business’ and for employers, businesses and unions to be involved in the reform process. This report sought to design a new health system for Australia with early intervention and prevention as its bedrock.

It is clear that a systemic approach to managing workplace culture is required. Research shows that improving workplace culture cannot be left to the sole discretion of individual employers as this will mean that some Australians miss out.  A case-by-case approach to investment in workplace culture will be subject to the financial conditions of the business, its human resources expertise and the priorities of those in leadership. Given the clear business and community case for investment in workplace culture, this requires a comprehensive national approach.

AIER believes that this is best administered at a federal level. The Australian Government needs to lead the way by developing a National Accreditation System that would educate employers and other workplace participants, and encourage their alignment with the objectives and values of the system. AIER recommends that the Australian Government adopt a National Accreditation System aimed at encouraging businesses to improve workplace culture.

The impetus for a National Accreditation System would be twofold, representing a powerful synergy and alignment between health and workplace relations portfolios. A national accreditation system would simultaneously help in the achievement of ‘Fair Work’ across all Australian workplaces and risk management of health problems originating from poor workplace culture.

It is recommended that at the heart of the National Accreditation System would lie the Australian Standard of Employment Rights. Building upon the Australian Charter of Employment Rights, this Standard provides a benchmark by which Australian workplace culture can be measured and improved. This would enable Australian businesses to assess how they are progressing in terms of workplace culture and to identify avenues and strategies for improvement.

AIER recommends that the Australian Government should provide seed funding to create a National Centre for Workplace Partnerships. This body would complement the existing statutory framework charged with the responsibility of implementing the government’s fair work agenda, and would be responsible for administering the accreditation system.

AIER believes that the National Taskforce for Preventative Health should be an ongoing body charged with assessing recommendations on the implementation of improved health in Australian workplaces, including via the National Accreditation System. The next task of the National Taskforce for Preventative Health should be to promote mechanisms for improved workplace culture in Australia.

In addition to the National Accreditation System, AIER recommends that the Australian Government use the Standard in its role as an employer, as part of its procurement policy for government contracts and in educating all Australians about the value of positive workplace culture.

We note the Australian Government’s Procurement Statement released in July 2009 indicates the government’s intention to require those submitting a tender to provide information on how they comply with the Fair Work Principles under the Fair Work Act 2009. AIER proposes that the Australian Standard of Employment Rights and the National Accreditation System be used to tangibly measure compliance with the Fair Work Principles. Otherwise, the current requirement under the Procurement Statement is in danger of becoming another procedural requirement or paper document that those submitting a tender must provide, rather than a tool to genuinely achieve improved workplace relationships and workplace culture.

In the likely event that cultural reform of Australian workplaces leads to improvement in workplace culture and a corresponding unburdening of the health system according to key performance indicators, the federal government should consider setting up favourable tax structures to encourage business engagement with, and participation in, the National Accreditation System.

By establishing tax incentives for businesses to achieve accreditation, the federal government will be ensuring that improving workplace culture is built into the lifeblood and objective of all businesses in Australia. Australia, as a whole, will greatly benefit from such an investment in preventative health and workplace culture.

Whilst Australia has traditionally been known as the ‘lucky country’ after 1901 – an epithet earned partly because of Australia’s history of relatively high minimum wages and industrial fairness – this new century offers an opportunity for Australia to earn a new reputation, as an international employer of choice and a country that genuinely values the dignity and worth of working people.