In most workplaces, the OHS program operates independently of the wellness program—if the company even has a wellness program. Typically, a safety coordinator runs the OHS program while the HR director oversees the wellness program and there’s little, if any, coordination between the two. But the authors of an article recently published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM) make the case that there’s a symbiotic relationship between these programs and that running them together is more effective and leads to greater improvement in workers’ overall health and safety. Here’s a look at their argument.
The authors of the JOEM article note that OHS and wellness programs cover a wide range of functions and goals, including:
- Assessing worker health status;
- Addressing personal health risks;
- Recognizing and treating injury or illness early;
- Implementing job safety initiatives;
- Developing a health and safety culture;
- Preventing disabilities;
- Assisting workers in returning to work after illnesses and injuries; and
- Implementing behavioural health and environmental safety initiatives.
As diverse as these activities are, they share common goals: promoting workers’ overall health and preventing workplace injuries and illnesses.
But the organizational attitudes toward each type of program differ. OHS programs are viewed as a “necessary evil” required for compliance with OHS laws; wellness programs are seen as an unnecessary “bonus” for workers. Similarly, workplace injuries are taken more seriously than workers’ overall health issues. For example, the authors note that when a worker gets hurt on the job, work often shuts down so a root-cause analysis can be done to identify and address the cause of the injury. In contrast, if a worker has a heart attack on the job, work generally continues uninterrupted and it’s unlikely anyone would investigate the cause of the incident. Thus, wellness programs don’t get the respect and commitment from management or workers that they need to be effective.
The authors also point out that disturbing health-related trends, such as an increase in chronic conditions (diabetes, heart disease), and an aging workforce are increasing health costs for employers. Meanwhile, the cost of workplace injuries and illnesses on companies also continues to increase. Thus, there’s clearly a need to improve the effectiveness of both OHS and wellness programs.
A Proposed Solution
The authors propose a new approach to address this disconnect between workplace safety and wellness: workplace health protection and promotion. They argue that this approach will enhance the overall well-being of the workforce by more closely integrating health promotion (that is, wellness) and health protection (that is, workplace safety) activities along a continuum. In this model, health promotion initiatives contribute dynamically to improved personal safety in addition to enhancing personal health; occupational safety initiatives contribute dynamically to improved personal health in addition to enhancing personal safety.
There’s evidence of ties between wellness and workplace safety that suggests an integrated approach is more effective at reducing injuries and illnesses and improving workers’ overall health. For example, studies have shown that factors such as good physical condition, absence of chronic illness and good mental health are associated with low occupational injury rates. Conversely, it has been shown that workers with certain adverse health risk factors such as obesity, sleep deprivation, poorly controlled diabetes, smoking and drug or alcohol abuse are more likely to sustain workplace injuries than those without such risks. Researchers have also found a statistically increased risk for accidental death in obese workers and determined that hearing loss and poor eyesight are associated with injuries on the job.
Why Focus on General Health Issues in the Workplace?
There are many reasons why companies should focus on general health issues in the workplace, including:
- Workplace programs can reach segments of the population who may not have access to health information in other settings;
- Workplaces concentrate groups of people together who share a common purpose and culture;
- The work environment can be used to advocate for and provide access to healthy lifestyles;
- Communicating with workers is straightforward due to pre-established and well-organized communication channels;
- Workplaces provide social and organizational supports;
- Organizational hierarchies enable the introduction of procedures, practices and norms as to health;
- The workplace’s physical environment can be used to affect health behaviours, such as healthy food options in the cafeteria, ergonomic office design, encouraging the use of stairways, etc.; and
- Financial and other incentives can be used in the workplace to gain participation in programs.
The authors acknowledge that their workplace health protection and promotion approach isn’t novel. In fact, the integration of workplace safety and wellness programs is being touted by various workplace safety organizations such as the US National Safety Council, NIOSH, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the International Labour Organization, the UK’s National Health Service and the EU’s Safety and Health at Work Strategy.
The new integrated models these groups are promoting include the following common elements:
- Building a “whole life” approach to health and safety, which combines both on-the-job and off-the-job aspects in a unified vision that leads to a true “culture of health”;
- Stressing the importance and connection of overall health and wellness to safety outcomes; and
- Recognizing the evolution in the nature of workplace hazards and including this awareness in the development of health strategies.
The basic theory underlying the JOEM article is that a healthier workforce can be a safer workforce and vice versa. Thus, the idea is to morph your workplace’s safety culture into a more inclusive and broader “culture of health.” You can achieve better integration of workplace safety and wellness in your workplace and thus better protect workers by:
- Implementing programs that recognize the interactions of safety, environment and health;
- Creating a climate in which workers believe that the company cares about their health and safety;
- Building a culture in which a health and safety mindset becomes a “24/7” way of thinking; and
- Promoting an off-the-job health and safety focus that becomes as important as—and overlaps with—the on-the-job health and safety focus.
Insider Says: For more information and tips on how to integrate workplace safety and wellness programs, see a guide for employers released by California, The Whole Worker: Guidelines for Integrating Occupational Health and Safety with Workplace Wellness Programs. And on OHSInsider.com, you can download an OHS and Wellness Program Integration Checklist to help guide the integration process in your company.
Workplace Health Protection and Promotion: A New Pathway for a Healthier—and Safer—Workplace, Pamela A. Hymel et al, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, June 2011