Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace (part three)

Health and Wellbeing

Workplace wellbeing is not occupational health and safety

The International Labour Organization (ILO) states that:

“Workplace wellbeing relates to all aspects of working life, from the quality and safety of the physical environment, to how workers feel about their work, their working environment, the climate at work and work organization. The aim of measures for workplace well-being is to complement Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) measures to make sure workers are safe, healthy, satisfied and engaged at work. Workers [sic] well-being is a key factor in determining an organization’s long-term effectiveness. Many studies show a direct link between productivity levels and the general health and well-being of the workforce”

The ILO definition above makes a crucial point:

“…workplace well-being is to complement OSH measures…”.

Wellbeing at work is not a core part of occupational health and safety management and must not be confused with occupational health and safety. If we consider Maslow once again, occupational health and safety can be seen as the foundation, the basic needs within the workplace which must be met first. Once these are clearly met, then you can move up the hierarchy. Workplace wellbeing can help to fulfil the self-fulfillment aspects of Maslow’s hierarchy. Where confusion often arises, is the middle section of the hierarchy. Poor occupational health (and safety) will undermine psychological needs, while workplace wellbeing can bolster it.

Managing occupational health and safety risks should therefore, always be managed first. This will provide a strong base and good foundation for the mid-section (psychological needs) and this will be visible through enhanced employee engagement and physical and mental health. It is onto this where additional enhancements can be made through effective wellbeing programs. Failure to tackle and effectively manage occupational health will undermine both health and safety management and any wellbeing initiatives. If workers can choose healthy food options for lunch but inhale cancer causing dusts when working, then the organization has got its priorities wrong…and workers will see this.

Workplace wellbeing programs

The best workplace wellbeing programs recognize that there are inter-related elements; the individual, the work environment /job, the organization and social engagement/values. Done properly, wellbeing programs are more than just a few ‘healthy life’ initiatives. They are about creating an organizational culture which promotes strong, ethical workplace relationships based on trust and respect; a collaborative and communicative management style; and a culture in which learning and development is encouraged so that people can fulfil their potential, as well as promoting good physical and psychological health, while enabling broader social engagement.

There is growing evidence that many workplace wellbeing programs do not deliver any measurable benefits15, most probably because organizations fail to recognize that these interrelated elements need to be tackled together (not to mention failing on getting the ‘foundations’ right – good occupational health and safety). This then undermines the psychological contract. A common focus of wellbeing programs is mental ‘resilience’ – training on ‘how to cope’. Organizations wrongly believe that ‘inoculating’ their workers against occupational stress, particularly in ‘high performance’ organizations will keep them working longer and make them happy. Rather, workers want and need a preventative approach which effectively manages the causes of occupational stress so that ‘inoculations’ are not necessary (and of course inoculations, can have side effects and don’t always work!).

It is the area of mental (ill) health, where there is often the most confusion between occupational health and safety and workplace wellbeing programs. It is simple however. Organizations should identify and prevent or manage the causes of occupational stress and what is often referred to as ‘psychosocial’16 hazards – which can lead to physical and mental illness. This is occupational health and safety and should be tackled first. Wellbeing programs can enhance mental health through continuous learning, social engagement and encouraging physical exercise (all shown to improve mental health). Occupational health and safety and wellbeing programs can also work together to educate workers on mental ill-health – this will bring about workplace and individual benefits.

In fact the most effective workplace wellbeing programs, are those which recognize the need to manage occupational health and safety. The WHO has developed a healthy workplace model17 aimed at comprehensively addressing:

  • work-related physical and psychosocial risks (occupational health and safety)
  • promotion and support of healthy behaviors (wellbeing)
  • broader social and environmental determinants (wellbeing)

This model identified 5 criteria (keys) to success:

  1. Leadership commitment and engagement
  2. Involve workers and their representatives
  3. Business ethics and legality
  4. Use a systematic, comprehensive process to ensure effectiveness and continual improvement
  5. Sustainability and integration

The ILO has developed the ‘SOLVE’18 training tool integrating wellbeing (workplace health promotion) programs aimed at specific health issues (e.g. smoking), with occupational health and safety.

In America, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed ‘Total Worker Health®’ (TWH), a holistic approach to occupational health and safety and worker wellbeing. This recognizes that work has an important function in the social determinants for health. TWH is defined as: “policies, programs, and practices that integrate protection from work-related safety and health hazards with promotion of injury and illness prevention efforts to advance worker well-being”19

This program goes much further than other programs and reflects the changing work environment, from new forms of employment to new technologies. It also reflects that non-work related ill-health can be adversely impacted by work, can have health and safety implications within the workplace, and, the way an organization manages ill-health (occupational or non-occupational) through sickness absence and rehabilitation policies, can have hugely positive or negative impacts on the individual and the organization.

Click here to download the full whitepaper

15 Osilla KC, van Busum K, Schnyer C, et al. Systematic review of the impact of worksite wellness programs. Am J Manag Care, 2012; 18, e68-e81

16 There is no single definition of ‘psychosocial’ but generally encompasses the causes of occupational stress (control, security, work demands, working hours etc.), bullying, harassment and violence, shift work and fatigue Japanese 心理社会的 , Chinese 社会心理