The Health & Safety Authority funded research into the costs and effects of workplace accidents and provided various case studies. The full report is available here.
The Health and Safety Authority commissioned the research with the aim of investigating the impact of workplace accidents through use of a case study approach.
In the below case study, Peter Callaghan describes a very difficult time in his life, and as such deserves credit for revealing such personal and sensitive information.
I have been working in emergency response since the early eighties and I enjoyed my time there. You never knew what a shift could bring. There were some days when you saw things that would be unimaginable to most people, but I was well trained and had no trouble with the job back then. I was able to put away any negative thoughts about what I encountered and concentrate on the job in hand, that was to provide an emergency service to the general public. In the late nineties I was promoted to a regional emergency control office where my duties included receiving phone calls from the general public and assigning vehicles to attend. I was in a team of seven which was on duty twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, year in year out. 24/7 as they say.
I knew there was going to be pressure with my new job, but I was coming from a job that already had its fair share of pressure, so I was just expecting a different type. What I didn’t bargain for was the increase in workload, the lack of staff and the lack of support from management. Soon after I took the job the geographical area we covered was expanded. We didn’t get any extra staff and as a result, work started to get busier and involve longer hours. We still had to provide the 24/7 cover though. Hence the normal practice of one twelve hour shift at a time started to change. It began with having to work extra hours at the end of the shift. Then the odd double shift had to be worked. Then the number of times I had to work both the longer hours, as well as extra shifts began to increase.
The absolute need to provide a 24/7 service to the public is obviously paramount. But those of us in the service had to take into account holidays and sick leave. So on some days and nights I would often have to work an eighteen hour shift. About once a month I found myself working a twenty four hour shift. The lack of staff also meant I could be working alone in the control office. This was all happening despite well laid down rules about work practices. At the time, I was fully involved with the management staff responsible for the service. I duly kept them informed about the problems we were encountering including the lack of staff to fully cover the control office. I also kept them informed of particular instances such as staff being left on their own, but it was to no avail. We didn’t get any extra staff and so the long hours just had to be worked, we had no choice in the matter. I thought I could improve matters by being involved in the running of the control office. So I was included in working groups, the union and committees regarding the running of the service. I was also involved with plans to expand the building we worked in. However, nothing came from our discussions with management, absolutely nothing.
This lack of action from management began to demoralise me. It seemed as if they didn’t care how bad things were or became. Even though the situation was plain to see, nothing was being done. This started to get me down. Then things became worse. My job involved getting as much information from callers so that I could make decisions as to which vehicles to send. Most of the time the decision was straightforward, but when we had more callers than we had vehicles, I had to make a decision as to which situation took priority. Three or four callers all looking for a vehicle when only one was available, wasn’t an uncommon situation. As all our phone calls are recorded, these decisions can easily be reviewed to make sure we are making the right judgement calls. However I noticed that management were taking more and more of an interest in these decisions than in how many staff we needed. This practice became more commonplace and my decisions and conduct were increasingly being challenged by management.
So in spite of the long hours and lack of staff, the management seemed more interested in my conduct rather than the needs of the service. They either couldn’t or wouldn’t help in providing the support necessary, but they had the time and resources to look at my work practices. It seemed like management would use any excuse to look at my conduct and investigate as a result. I began to question my own decision making and found myself less able to come to conclusions. I was now second guessing the outcome of any possible investigations before making decisions. In the past making the right choice at work was no problem to me, now my ability to do just that, started to desert me. This had the effect of undermining my confidence.
After years and years of experience second to none in the service, my decisions were being scrutinised. Even though my decision making was found to be as required, I felt my confidence start to drain away. It felt so unfair, the long hours, the lack of support from management, the lack of staff and the feeling of being left alone to deliver the service without adequate resources. All these problems and all management were interested in was my conduct. The situation was slowly getting worse and worse. I was totally demoralised by this stage and unaware of what I might be pulled up for next. I began to dread going to work. After twenty years of exemplary service, I had lost confidence in myself. There was no end in sight and nobody seemed to care. At the same time, the work load just continued and continued and continued. At that stage work seemed like a prison and it really started to take its toll. My health problems started with not being able to sleep properly at night. Then I found myself being less and less interested in my surroundings. I was just not interacting socially with others. This was the start of my illness and in 2004 some years after I started in the control office, my personality had changed completely.
For six months in 2004 my symptoms accelerated. I was going downhill fast and I knew there was something wrong with me. From being a person who was happily married, happy go lucky and with a good sports and social life, I had become quiet and withdrawn. I was someone else and I was on a downward spiral. I was withdrawn at home and I was withdrawn at work. I pulled out of all working parties union duties and committees to do with work. In effect I went into hiding. I was physically absolutely shattered and eventually I was barely functioning. I was like a car that was grinding to a halt. I was eating very little and I had lost weight. I was getting panic attacks. I was now pacing the house getting chest pains and palpitations. I could not settle at all. I didn’t want to leave the house.
The situation finally came to a head when my wife and in laws, concerned at my deteriorating behaviour, forced me to go see my local GP. I remember the GP taking my pulse in the surgery with my heartbeat racing. He diagnosed me as suffering from anxiety and stress. It was the first time I had associated those terms with myself. He gave me a certificate for one month of sick leave and prescribed relaxants. That month off was a godsend. At last I could get some rest. I went to counselling during my sick leave and I found that very helpful. At the end of the month, although not fully back to health, I was much more like my old self. I remember starting to research the conditions I had been diagnosed with. I found that anxiety and stress have a lot of websites.
On returning to the GP he gave me another month’s leave. Although I was still not fully recovered, I went back to work and faced the same conditions that I had left. I was not back long when after one particular shift, I was left so absolutely shattered and drained that I went back to my GP. He put me straight back on sick leave. Even though I was still off work I was worse than ever. I had now become very anxious and fearful about never being able to return to work. When I went back to the GP he referred me to a stress clinic in Dublin. The psychiatrist there diagnosed me with work related stress and put me on sick leave for a further three months. I was prescribed anti-anxiety tablets and within three weeks I felt better. However, I was further instructed not to return to the same role in work. This stipulation not to go back to the same work situation was a further upset to me, a real blow.
To be told that I could not go back to the same role and responsibilities was a big disappointment. I’m only in my forties and I have a lot to contribute. I want to work and be productive. But against that, and having been made ill as a result of poor work conditions, I’m not about to put my health at risk again. It’s just not worth it. I remember the worst of my illness and I’m not going through that again. I know management have now made an effort to recruit more staff to the control office. The staff numbers have been doubled since I was there last but they still have a high turnover.
Of the original team of seven when I joined, just two are left. I went back to work full time in 2005. My duties are different now though and I don’t have the same role. I feel I am totally under utilised as I’m only given administrative duties to carry out. Thankfully I’m now almost back to the same level of health as I was three years ago, before the stress started. I’m still on the medication though. I’m in a different work role now but my position at work has not been finalised. I’m having ongoing negotiations with our HR department about my employment status and I don’t know what the outcome will be. I started in this career over twenty years ago. Before I was promoted I was on sick leave twice in those twenty years. Once due to tonsillitis and once due to food poisoning. My life now has utterly and completely changed. I wish I could go back three years and stop what happened to me.
I found out the hard way how your health can be affected at work.
Total employee costs €46,000;
€2,500 Stress management courses in Dublin
€1,500 Doctor’s certificates and medication
€2,000 Travel to Dublin to visit psychiatrist
€30,000 Lost overtime payments
€10,000 Other expenses
Total employer costs €238,082;
€69,041 Salary costs of injured employee
€69,041 Salary costs of replacement staff
€100,000 Retraining cost for replacement staff