Low job control

Safe Work Australia has pinpointed 14 psychosocial risks that can adversely affect not only productivity and engagement levels, but also the physical and psychological well-being of employees.

Low job control and low job security have the power to drive mental ill-health and is most prevalent in industries, including accommodation/food services, manufacturing, retail, and administrative services, finds a 2017 study.

The research also highlighted that nearly one in five workers from these aforementioned industries struggled with poor mental health. Therefore, proving the severity of leaving this risk unattended in the workplace.

Sound leadership practices and behaviours can help eliminate, as far as reasonably practicable, the prevalence of these risks in the workplace.

To this, Stephen Bell, Managing Director said during the webinar that “One of the early hints that I want to give the many HR professionals out there is that the first place to start with risk mitigation, particularly with psychosocial risks, is how leaders treat their culture.”

“And culture is just such a powerful element of the workplace as it has the potential to impact your employer brand, performance, and ability to comply with laws and regulations.”

Importantly, on the subject of psychosocial safety, leaders and HR professionals “need to believe in proactivity,” he adds.

“But I think a lot of leaders and organisations are really needing more practical guidance on how do I actually identify and benchmark these risks in my business?”, responds Steven Booker, Consulting Psychologist and guest speaker in this webinar.

Here’s a summary, along with time stamps of what went on in our first webinar on decoding psychosocial risks in the workplace

0:00 – 2:20 – Webinar commences 

Introduction by Michael Battaglia, Business Acquisition Lead to welcome registrants, introduce the topic for the day, and let attendees respond to a poll on ‘low job control’.

2:22 – 7:07: Agenda for the webinar 

Bell initiates the conversation by talking about the relationship between proactive leadership and workplace culture. And says, “being proactive is an important mindset that we need to take into 2024.”

He goes on to introduce the attendees to the ‘Bell Culture Model’ he had developed years ago that succinctly pinpoints how leadership behaviour has a profound impact on workplace culture, which further drives employer brand, productivity, compliance with laws, and psychosocial safety.

Bell Culture Model and its Relevance to Low Job Control

After briefly discussing leadership behaviours and practices, Bell shifts the attendee’s focus to Booker who takes us through the key topics that will be covered in the webinar.

7:08 – 9:44: How and when did laws on psychosocial risks start operating in each state and territory?

Booker responds to this question by highlighting that most states and definitely the federal jurisdiction have codes of practice on responding to psychosocial risks.

Although these are not strictly defined under legal terms, “because you can do different things than what is in the code, as long as you achieve the same standard of safety”, there is still a standard of best practice that is expected of organisations and businesses owners to have read and follow these guidelines, adds Booker.

All states, except for Victoria, and the federal jurisdiction amended their Work Health Safety Regulations between October 2022 and December 2023, to specifically address psychosocial risks, highlights Booker.

“If you’re in South Australia, the government gave you a Christmas present by making those amended regulations commence on Christmas Day last year.”

“And even though Victoria hasn’t amended its regulations, it is considering doing so. If you look at WorkSafe Victoria’s website, it is really clear that they’re also focused on psychosocial risks,” he adds.

9:45 – 15:30: Workplace reality theatre – Fictional roleplay to show a vignette of what the signs of low job control might actually look like in the workplace.

The scenario focuses on Betty, a picker and packer in the warehouse of a multinational consumer goods company. She is being interviewed by a safety consultant from iHR Australia as part of a risk assessment to spot psychosocial risks in the organisation.

15:32 – 20:49: How are we supposed to give more job control to employees whose job is heavily prescribed by an act?

Booker provides a case study dated in 1978, in the aviation sector, involving United Airlines flight 173. The flight was preparing to land, but the landing gear had trouble being released. While the crew was focused on trying to solve the issue, a junior crew member noticed that the fuel was running dangerously low.

Back in those days, the captain had the final say in matters, which meant junior staff didn’t feel empowered to offer solutions during times of crisis.

Booker notes that the reason for feeling a lack of empowerment is that the aviation industry had heavily regulated job roles.

“I totally get why low job control is a controversial topic,” says Booker.

“If you think about it, there’s an element of control in every employment relationship, right? It’s a term of every employment contract, whether it’s written or not. But I think this example shows that that doesn’t mean we can’t have acceptable levels of job control”, he adds.

To this Bell nods in agreement and shares a critical skill that most leaders need to have in 2024 – listening to their people, which is the first step to empowerment in the workplace.

20:51 – 23:06: Definition of low job control

From a psychological point of view, “the concept of autonomy, which I guess we can define as independence, or a feeling of having choices, is really central to the concept of job control,” says Booker.

“The need for autonomy is a fundamental human need that is deeply upsetting if it’s missing or taken away”, he adds.

Booker defines low job control by quoting some examples or instances that might take place in the workplace, such as:

  • Having little influence or input over how work is done
  • Change implementation approaches
  • Simple things such as when breaks are taken
  • Being required to work with highly prescriptive processes, policies, systems, or work procedures that do not allow employees to apply their skills or exercise, reasonable judgement
  • Tightly scripted, machine, computer paced, or controlled work situations where the level of autonomy that employees have is not matched to their abilities
  • Lack of control over exposure to a difficult physical work environment

Based on the definition, Bell puts forth a thought-provoking question “Do we have statistics or noticeable demographic trends of the percentage of Australian workers who have low job control?

23:07 – 26:18: Demographic trends of Australian workers reporting low job control

Booker draws from the conclusions presented in the HILDA survey [Household Income and Labour Dynamics] as part of the 2017 study mentioned in the introduction paragraph.

The survey dives into the percentage of Australian employees reporting low job control.

From an industry point of view

The highest levels of low job control were reported by workers in transport, postal and warehousing, accommodation and food and retail trade industries with one in three people reporting low job control.

Around one in five employees in the mining, administration and support manufacturing, healthcare and social assistance industries were also noted to have low job autonomy in their workplace.

“So, you know, it’s not an insignificant thing. It’s actually something that’s quite common,” says Booker.

From an occupation point of view

The worst levels of low job control were reported by police, firefighters, prison and security guards, with around 40% experiencing the aftermath of it. One in three labourers, machinery operators, community and personal service workers and sales workers reported low job control.

26:20 – 32:02: What is an acceptable level of job control? 

Booker offers some guidelines from both a legal and psychological point of view.

He further explored what a reasonable level of job control is, compared to a harmful level, by describing the differences among businesses and employees, and how it can be determined from an employee’s previous experiences, coping styles, need for autonomy and resilience.

“So, it’s really necessary. And this is kind of what the code of practice says, for each organisation to go through a bit of a risk assessment process to measure whether there are psychosocial hazards in their business, and if so, to risk assess those hazards and implement interventions,” he says.

He also provides some best practice approaches leaders can follow:

  • Have an informal chat with employees and find out which aspect of work is stressful
  • Introduce other forms of support
  • Temporary changes to workload or targets
  • Employee assistance or upskilling opportunities
  • Have RUOK? conversations to conduct early intervention
  • Consulting with HR to see if this is a pattern
  • Self-reflection on delegating effectively
  • Encouraging employee participation
  • Complying with organisation’s policies

Booker also elaborates on the need to realise that tackling psychosocial risks is a two-way street, which means while leaders have a critical role in eliminating these risks, employees need to display cooperation from the get-go.

32:03 – 35:11: The impact of low job control along with some interesting data

“It’s actually pretty shocking,” states Booker.

“I had researched psychosocial risks for a number of years before preparing for this webinar, but I refreshed my knowledge on low job control and was kind of surprised at the stats,” he adds,

Booker refers back to the HILDA survey, but this time utilised another research study from 2020 that shows a significant association between ongoing exposure to low job control and heart disease as well as mental ill health, such as depression. The study also found the outcome to be excess mortality.

“The researchers tracked about 20,000 working Australians over 15 years, separated those who reported low job control from high job control, and found that they had a 39% greater risk of death from all causes, if they were consistently exposed to low job control,” he quotes.

Bell talks about the need for leaders to regularly check-in with employees and ask the question – “How do you really feel about the work you do?”

35:12 – 38:14: How to measure the level of job control

Booker points leaders back to the importance of having robust risk assessment processes and being across the codes of practice.

He also says, “Some employers have said to me when I’ve suggested risk assessment that they do a psychosocial risk survey, and the response I get is look, we don’t want to let the genie out of the bottle, we don’t want to kind of put into the minds of employees that these risks might be there. But, if it’s something leaders are not already thinking about, it’s really not constructive.”

He suggests some steps leaders can follow to conduct a risk assessment in their organisation:

  • Give employees information to be able to identify and recognise psychosocial hazards
  • Comply with the new preventative approach to drive retention, engagement, and productivity
  • Review internal metrics like leave rates, compensation claims, injury reports or investigations, to see if there are patterns and trends that can identify psychosocial risks
  • Encourage a workplace culture of one-on-one conversations

This brings the webinar at a crucial point of highlighting psychosocial risk surveys.

“They are part of an effective risk assessment, but you do not have to necessarily use them.”

“The Code of Practice, however, mentions they can be helpful for anonymity reasons or when there is a dispersed workforce within the organisation,” he says.

38:16 – 40:42: Survey fatigue and what can help to manage psychosocial risks

“I know there’s survey fatigue around us”, says Booker.

He proposes alternative qualitative techniques, like interviews and focus groups, and directs people to some freely available tools like the Copenhagen Psychosocial Questionnaire (COPSOQ). The CPRS will be a key part of the service iHR Australia provides soon to help organisations unpack the existence of these psychosocial risks.

“You’ve got to take the actions that are reasonably practicable to eliminate the risks as far soon as possible. If they cannot be eliminated, you have got to do what’s reasonably practicable to control them. What is reasonably practicable for an efficient Fish and Chips shop is different to what’s reasonably practicable for a multinational,” he clarifies.

“Cost is absolutely a factor in determining reasonably practicable but it’s by no means the only driving consideration, in fact, the law kind of emphasises prevention over cost,” he adds.

40:45 – 42:26: Interventions to improve low job control

“Stress is a psychological thing, although it has physical effects.”

“It’s a perception that we have challenges that we can’t cope with. So, sometimes all you can do to give people with low job control more control, is let them make choices about things that aren’t central, but are still important, like deciding what topic we’re going to talk about in each team meeting or choosing where we get the coffee from”, says Booker.

He also summarises the key tactics leaders can deploy in their workplace to overcome this risk.

42:28 – 46:23: The role of leaders in mitigating risks around job control, and poll results

Booker offers some final comments on what leaders can do to give more autonomy and choice to their team.

He also brings back the poll on the screen to discuss how the attendees have responded to the question and does a quick analysis of the results.

47:03 – 55:32: Questions from registrations on how to manage low job control

55:33 – 57:53: Closing statements and conclusion 

Where to next?

Get the conversation started about how to manage low job control, update your workplace policies, and implement intervention strategies, keeping in mind the recent psychosocial risks guidelines.

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