OSH and the problems of performance stress

By Dr Graham Little PhD AFNZIM


In New Zealand there has recently been introduced legislation that places the onus on employers to ensure their employees are not placed under undue stress. This article questions the validity and the emphasis of this legislation, and asks if this is really the type of direction as a society in which we ought or can even afford to travel.

One of the corrosive, pervasive attitudes that underlies the New Zealand psyche is to have a lot for as little as possible, in particular as little effort, as little risk, as little responsibility, all with the biggest possible share.

A second pervasive issue, bought to the fore recently by some surveys, is the remarkable lack of a link in the minds of ‘the general public’ (whoever they are) between economic success and having enough money for better schools, complete health care, comprehensive policing and the like.

Finally, the third issue is derived from our proud heritage of do-it-yourself, a harking back to our pioneering days where there was “just us and the land to tame”. This has happened elsewhere of course, but fortunately they grew out of it. As a result we do not regard very well intellectual pursuits, and have a quite firm belief that we really do know.

As in life, and certainly here, these issues neatly collided enabling politicians to offer to the public an idea that seems on the surface, especially given the pre-dispositions noted above, to be very attractive: reduction of work pressure, while retaining any and all privileges, etc. I hope I do not have to elaborate on the likely appeal of this idea of restricting the ability of the employer to seek better performance.

Fundamentally the idea with such appeal leaves many questions open, not the least is the very validity of the idea, with seeming little or no focus or emphasis on individual’s accountability for their own stress.

The little case study below begins to explore this issue. Now I am aware that it could be argued that the employee should be conscious of the employee’s limitations and should be mindful and accommodating. The counters to this are several and various: is the firm and manager thy brother’s keeper? When is the person responsible for his or her own circumstance and choices? Even if having been trained, this does not guarantee the person will and can walk the talk, despite being able to talk the talk. The employers, mindful of the difficulties of dismissing weak performers – a circumstance we embrace in the economy yet yell hard and loud for dismissal if top sports people do not deliver – are left in a cleft stick, the proverbial rock and hard place. Demands, rights yet no serious acceptance that any demand and allocation of right or privilege to be valid must be matched by obligation and responsibility.

Read the article and ask yourself on which side do you fall, left or right? Who is responsible for the success and failure?
If the boss on the left had this experience several times each week, and month, what should they do? But in New Zealand, it is brutally hard to dismiss, and difficult to apply pressure? So what should they do?

What are the long-term consequences of this? Do we really seek mediocrity? And what message does it send out if we protect the manager on the left?

Who then will pay for our grand children’s health, schooling and ensure their safety, especially if we continue to erode commitment to quality and success in our economy?

Silly little case as it seems, can you see the issues, and that as a nation, as a society, we are not really facing them? For to face them, means facing ourselves, our place in the scheme of things, and whether or not we, alone, just us can or is willing to improve our place without sneaking it off another. Our national cake is just not big enough to match our expectations, yet we accept the erosion of the drive that could fix that in order to put ourselves in proverbial cotton wool.
Is that who we are as a people: friendly, but small and frightened?

Read the two examples, why do you think the manager on left lost the plot?

8.00am drive to work. Think through the priorities, the contract that must be completed, the policy decision on plant A must be finalized, the new roster needs to be checked – oh and must not forget the flowers for Anne’s birthday.
8.00am Drive to work. Think through the priorities, the contact that must be completed, the policy decision on plant A must be finalized, the new roster needs to be checked – oh and must not forget the flowers for Anne’s birthday
8.30am In office. Advised of problem with product quality at largest customer   8.30am In office. Advised of problem with product quality at largest customer
8.45am Meeting in boardroom. Discuss complaint. Create strategy for dealing with it   8.45am Meeting in boardroom. Discuss complaint. Create strategy for dealing with it
10.30am Back to office. Five message to phone back and the phone is still ringing. Take the call. You reply to three messages.   10.24am End meeting by advising team you intend to work on the contract and are not to be disturbed unless it is urgent. The sales representative is to advise your secretary as soon as they have got acceptance from the customer.
10.40am Cup of coffee   10.25am Discuss aspects of the contract with general manager while walking back to office.
10.50am Production supervisor rings about roster.   10.30am At office. Five messages, none urgent. They can all wait. Tell secretary you are not to be disturbed.
10.52am Check roster   10.35am Open mail. Dictate two letters. Delegate remainder to secretary
11.00am General manager calls at office to discuss the plans for dealing with the customer complaint   10.40am Cup of coffee
11.50am Return other two phone calls   10.44am Relaxation exercise for ninety seconds. Clears mind and freshen feelings
12.15pm Lunch   10.46am Pick up contract.
12.50pm Make notes on phone calls. Draft memo to sales manager.   12.15pm Secretary brings coffee and sandwiches for lunch. Advises that production supervisor is enquiring about the roster. You instruct her to advise supervisor he will have it by 10am tomorrow.
1.05pm What next. Shuffle papers. Oh yes. The contract   1.30pm Contract almost complete.
1.30pm Your wife calls. Anne, your secretary comes in to advise the production director wants to meet and discuss the policy on Plant A. Damn, forgot to order the flowers.   2.00pm Ten high stretches to loosen muscles.
1.40pm Order flowers   2.45pm Complete contract. Pass to secretary for typing. List of messages.
1.45pm Meeting with production director   2.48pm Relaxation and mind clearing for ninety seconds. What is important now? Damn forgot flowers and letter to Jameson.
2.35pm At desk. Now what was I going to do? Why do I feel tired already?   2.50pm Order flowers. Dictate letter to Jameson.
2.40pm Pick up contract.   2.57pm Return call to wife. Anne, your secretary comes in to remind you the production director has rung twice to arrange a meeting.
2.42pm Cup of coffee.   3.10pm Meeting with production director
2.47pm Pick up contract.   3.45pm Begin returning phone calls
2.50pm Answer phone call.   4.00pm Bill from down the hall visits for a chat. Cup of coffee.
2.54pm Pick up contract.   4.14pm Bill politely shown to the door
3.15pm Bill from down the hall visits. Cup of coffee   4.36pm Anne returns final copy of contract and advises the sales representative has confirmed the customer’s acceptance of the plan for dealing with defective product.
3.42pm Pick up contract. Where was I?   4.40pm General manager’s office. Delighted with the improvements to the contract. Offers you a sherry
4.10pm Damn. Need to get out that letter to Jameson. Dictate letter. Chat to Anne   5.15pm Diary note – check roster then off home. It’s been a good day
4.24pm Page four of fifteen-page contract    
4.40pm Telephone call from the sales representative confirming the customer has accepted proposals for correcting the defective product    
4.45pm Pick up contract    
5.15pm Telephone rings. Now up to page twelve. It’s the general manager asking for the contract. “What have you done all day?”

Summarize why the manager on left lost the plot. How does this apply to you? To your boss? Is what we have in New Zealand really committed to building a more successful economic future? Or are we still looking for all we can for the least effort and cost? Seeking privilege now, and not really thinking of the consequences tomorrow?