January 15, 2020
Workplace safety and health is evolving beyond "do no harm"
A growing body of evidence shows that supporting employee health and well-being pays off for employers.
“A healthier workforce means less absenteeism, better productivity, better quality and higher overall morale,” said Loss Prevention Specialist Dana Mickelson. “A healthy workforce is also a safer workforce.”
Occupational health and safety is broadening to include all aspects of employee well-being, benefiting employees and employers alike.
Moving past ‘do no harm’
In the past, conceptions of workplace safety and health were based on the idea that work should “do no harm.” But we’re now seeing this broaden to a philosophy that work should support health, said Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink.
“We used to silo the hazards and risks, and then assume that all other work was neutral,” she said. “We now recognize that all work can have a positive or negative impact on people’s lives.”
Some describe this shift as a focus on worker well-being, which can include emotional, mental, physical, financial and relational health. “People are happy, healthy, prosperous, fulfilled, purposeful, contented, comfortable — those are all terms that describe well-being,” Leppink said.
She cited a number of reasons for this evolution, including changing demographics. Millennials expect work that supports their well-being, she said, and on the other end of the age spectrum employees are working longer and therefore wanting to take better care of their health.
The changing nature of work, and especially the role of technology, is also a factor — from sitting all day, to never unplugging from work to dealing with constant distractions, she said. “In any given day you’re receiving texts, you’re receiving email messages. You’re being asked to pay attention and are distracted by multiple devices,” Leppink said. “Consequently, that results in greater levels of stress.”
The value in focusing on worker well-being
As companies embrace workplace well-being initiatives, more research is showing the benefits to employers.
A 2016 American Psychological Association survey linked senior management support for employee well-being to much higher rates of employee motivation, satisfaction and retention.
At companies where senior managers supported well-being, 91% of employees said they felt motivated to do their best versus 38% at other companies, according to the American Psychological Association survey. Similarly, only 25% of employees at companies valuing well-being said they intended to leave their job in the next year versus 51% at other companies.
Higher employee well-being correlates with higher employee productivity, customer loyalty and business unit productivity, according to a 2019 analysis by economists Christian Krekel, George Ward and Jan-Emmanuel De Neve. Their meta-analysis was based on 339 independent Gallup studies encompassing 1.8 million employees.
What employers are doing
Employers of all sizes are finding ways to support employee health in their workplaces.
It can be something as simple as being sure there are healthy food options in the break room vending machines, or offering ergonomic assessments of employees’ workstations and making any needed corrections.
Others provide sit-stand workstations or access to a gym onsite.
For others, it means offering an employee assistance program (EAP) or comprehensive wellness program, or even doing building renovations to make the workplace more supportive of employee well-being.
No matter where you are on the spectrum, there are always opportunities to do more to support the well-being of your workforce.
How to do it
So, how do you practically consider all aspects of your employees’ well-being when designing your work environment?
You can start by asking questions like:
- How do my employees’ work schedules affect their physical and mental health?
- Does our workplace support employees in healthy eating?
- Is our workplace arranged in a way that encourages employees to get up and move throughout their workday?
On an individual scale, it’s about helping your supervisors understand that they need to see the whole person in each of their employees, not just the worker, Mickelson said. That includes awareness of both the physical and the mental.
For example, if supervisors recognize when employees who are in safety-sensitive jobs are distracted or fatigued, they can consider moving them to less dangerous roles for the day.
“It’s really about being tuned in to your employees,” Mickelson said.
In many cases, simply asking your employees what you could do to better support their well-being is a great place to start.
Know that whichever steps you choose to take as an organization, letting employees know that you care about them will pay dividends for your organization and your workforce.