Workplaces have a responsibility to ensure the health and welfare of their staff. Amal Cimino shares how she is using Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) legislation to help her workmates advocate for protection of their mental health at work.

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For far too long workplaces have pretended that psychosocial issues such as burnout, stress, anxiety and depression were not their responsibility. People suffering from workplace mental health issues were made to feel isolated and incapable, and even pushed to seek alternate work.

2016 was a hard year not only for me, but it seemed that way for a lot of people. Being a full-time activist and organiser is hard at the best of times, dealing with conflicting personalities, a high workload and sometimes not a huge amount of autonomy over the work – it’s not hard to see why a range of psychosocial issues are possible. So I decided to put my name forward to represent my co-workers as their Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) representative with mental health on the top of my agenda.

Not many people realise that psychosocial issues actually make up a large part of workplace health and safety. A workplace MUST ensure, as they do with all other aspects of OH&S, that they ‘secure the health, safety and welfare of employees and other persons at work.’

OH&S canva1The more I researched psychosocial issues the more I realised that workplace issues were among some of the top causes of mental health problems in Australia. According to Beyond Blue (a serious recommendation to check out) a combination of factors can lead a person to develop mental health issues.

The following are among the highest:

  • Changing jobs
  • Job stress
  • High workload
  • Experiencing verbal, sexual, physical or emotional abuse or trauma

As an activist and organiser I speak to hundreds of people on a monthly basis. These conversations can be with individuals, small groups and large masses of people. It is common for these encounters to be confrontational and conflictual, and for my view point to be criticised in front of others. In this line of work, over time, it it not uncommon for organisers to develop symptoms of social phobia, making it extremely hard to continue interacting with people, especially when there’s little known assistance available. I have suffered from such symptoms myself, and  it doesn’t seem as though I’m alone. One in five Australians has a mental illness and what’s even worse is hearing that more than 10 per cent of people with a mental illness die by suicide within the first 10 years of diagnosis. And as stated above, a person’s employment may impact on their likelihood of developing a mental health issue. So clearly something needs to be done!

Throughout my time as an OH&S rep I wanted to change these statistics and make mental health a real focus in my workplace. I felt lost at first because it had never been done in my workplace before, but if you feel like me don’t worry, there’s heaps of stuff out there! In order to find out the issues and help my workmates feel supported, I created an anonymous OH&S survey to be distributed among the workers. The survey was successfully completed by the majority of workers and has allowed us a starting point for discussions with management on positive change. This is a work in progress and doesn’t take overnight to achieve so take it one step at a time and celebrate the small wins when you get them.

If you currently don’t have OH&S representatives in your workplace, speak to your employer. The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Part 1, Section 3) states that employees must be offered a representative in relation to health and safety at work. They cannot refuse your right to have representatives in the workplace and if they do then call Worksafe or your union and ask for advice. If you’re already a Health and Safety rep in your workplace your best friend is the OH&S Act, it has all the legal obligations your workplace MUST follow. Part 7 of the OH&S Act talks about the representation of employees and resolution of health and safety issues, in which it states you have the power as a rep to arrange a Worksafe inspector to visit your workplace if no attempt is made by your employer to fix an issue you raise (these are called Provisional Improvement Notices or PINs).OH&S canva2

Trades Hall Victoria runs a training course for OH&S reps and Worksafe Victoria can provide very helpful handbooks and guidelines such as the Employee Representation handbook and the Workplace amenities and work environment handbook (which can help provide assistance if your anxiety, stress or depression is related to your workspace). They also have relevant and helpful hazard information sheets on workplace assault and violence, shift work and fatigue which have been proven to cause high risks for workplace stress and anxiety. It is so important to note that these info sheets can be extremely helpful for you and your employer so they know their legal obligations. They also have risk assessments inside them that can be completed by you and your colleagues and given to your employer to provide evidence to them that there are issues that need to be fixed.

Like I said before this is a work in progress. I hope this helps you or someone you know and I wish you all the best of luck getting out there and making mental health a priority for every workplace.


Photo: Government of Alberta

AmalAmal Cimino is a union organiser based in Melbourne.

How has your workplace responded to mental health problems among staff? Does your workplace, group or movement have strategies for overcoming mental health challenges? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.