Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace (part one)

Health and Wellbeing

The most successful organizations recognize that a healthy workplace is a happy and productive one. Governments are starting to recognize that employers and managers have a leading role in preventing ill health and promoting good health. Individuals also recognize how important their health is; older workers need to stay fit and healthy to keep working and enjoy their later years; younger generations are more informed on health and they expect their employers to actively provide healthy workplaces, not ones that merely give them a paycheck.

Physical and mental occupational disease and illness can be prevented. There is no excuse for workers to lose their health – for example suffer hearing damage, develop asthma or die from cancer from uncontrolled exposures at work. Working conditions should not create environments that increase the likelihood of physical or mental ill-health, such as those associated with occupational stress. 

Why the emphasis on health in the workplace now

Frustratingly, the need to consider the health and welfare of workers is not a new concept. For example, the UK, as one of the first industrial nations, introduced legislation as early as 1802 to protect worker’s health. The Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802 required cotton mill employers to clean the mills twice a year, and ensure that there were enough windows to allow fresh air into the building. Additionally, recognizing that broader social factors had an impact on health, the Act also required that ‘suitable and sufficient’ clothing and sleeping accommodation be provided. 

Examples of enlightened employers and social philanthropists, protecting and enhancing workers lives, can be found throughout industrial history around the world. As countries have developed, legislation to protect workers has been introduced. And yet 2.78 million people still die each year from work-related accidents and diseases and a further 374 million people suffer work-related injuries and diseases1

The hazard and consequence of poor safety is clearer and more immediate than health. A hand pulled into a machine with industrial rollers will be severely crushed. The prevention method2 is also clearer – a fixed guard stopping hands getting near the rollers for instance. Health is more complex. Occupational ill-health often does not become apparent for years and may be the result of prolonged or repeated exposures over many years or even decades. Individual susceptibility varies. Not every chef will develop contact dermatitis from handling onions but many do. Then there is the question of accountability – which restaurant job caused the exposure that led to the dermatitis? The prevention methods can also be harder to implement – can a chef work if they can’t chop onions?

Our understanding with regard to health and ill-health (both occupational and non-occupational) is now better than it has ever been in history. We have research and an evidence base on what causes ill-health and how to prevent it. The importance and benefits of good health to individuals, organizations and society are also evidenced.

‘Health’ is now a global public policy issue with an increased focus on disease prevention and reducing ‘avoidable3’ mortality. The increasing world population, combined with increasing levels of chronic health conditions such as diabetes, together with an aging population where long-latency diseases will become more common, mean that governments, society and organizations have to take proactive measures.

Increases in chronic health conditions arising from poor health lifestyles and the social determinants of health – the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age and the fact that this is “shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels”4 are also understood in a way that is influencing global policy. This can be seen in initiatives such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

As a result, health risks and health promotion within the workplace are receiving renewed focus and being considered within the global context of public health policy. 

Businesses are also focused on corporate responsibility and sustainability and their ‘ethical’ footprint. The rise of ‘glocal’ economies and social media means that businesses are being held to account for their actions in a way that was not the case a generation ago. ‘Trust’ is now a particular focus for business. How can they gain (and keep) the ‘trust’ of their customers and their workers? For the latter, health and wellbeing is now starting to be seen as a value to be protected, as part of the trust agenda. The fourth International Strategy Conference on Safety and Health at Work linked occupational health and safety, trust and a people-centered approach5: The crossover in the public and work health agenda is particularly prevalent in the topic of ‘wellbeing’. As governments, particularly those in high income countries, focus on the public health burden, they see the workplace as an effective route for the delivery of change. 

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Next week, in Part 2 we’ll cover what “wellbeing at work” means for you.



2 Controls, preventative and mitigating

3 Such as maternal mortality, preventable deaths of new-borns and children, epidemics and road traffic accidents