How many of us truly understand the importance of health in the workplace and as employers and health and safety professionals, is it enough to focus on just keeping our employees safe?
These are just two of the questions Professor Anne Harriss posed late last year as she visited New Zealand on an occupational health speaking tour in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. One of the highest awarded professors in occupational health nursing in the world, Professor Harriss works at London’s South Bank University and holds both a National Teaching Fellowhip and Principal Fellowship of the Higher Educational Academy. She was recently awarded a Fellowship of the Royal College of Nursing and an honorary Fellowship of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine. Professor Harriss was supported on her tour by Fit For Work – an organisation that specialises in occupational health, vocational rehabilitation and injury prevention.
“We need to acknowledge that health is a very important part of health and safety. It is pointless protecting someone’s safety in the workplace if you are putting their health at risk,” said Harriss.
“How many organisations that think about the health of their workers, think about the big picture? The whole person? Health is not just about the absence of disease, it is about health in its entirety, employers need to understand the biopsychosocial model of health,” said Harriss.
The biopsychosocial model considers more than the physical or biological aspects of a person’s health and includes the psychological and social aspects, including family and work influences. This takes a more holistic view of health and wellbeing than the medical model, enabling people to develop fitness in both a physical and psychological sense. This includes the ability to manage stress and build resilience.
Dr David Beaumont, a Director at Fit For Work, supported Harriss on the tour and says it is a mistake to look at health and safety in the workplace one dimensionally.
“Health is more than everything working well in a physical sense. It is the ability to adapt and self-manage in the face of life’s challenges. Health is about how we cope when stuff happens. Health is living life more purposefully and leading a life worth living. Those that work in the business of health, and this includes those that work in health and safety and employers, should be helping people to accomplish purpose and meaning. We should want employees to flourish at work and at home, not just cope,” says Dr Beaumont.
Fit For Work provides a range of occupational health services to many different companies in New Zealand. Dr Beaumont points out that WorkSafe NZ appropriately ensures that companies focus first on health protection – ensuring that work practices are not harming people. But he says, more and more employers are now asking for support to provide health and wellbeing programmes.
“A recent BusinessNZ survey identified that New Zealand employers lose 6.6 million working days due to sickness absence, at a cost of $1.5Billion per year. It found that getting health and wellbeing programmes right, results in decreased absence due to sickness and increased engagement and productivity. It also found a return on investment of between $3.00 – $4.00 per $1.00 spend – but only if introduced within an organisational culture of health,” said Dr Beaumont.
Part of managing health and safety in the work place, is also controlling risk. Professor Harriss is an expert in risk assessment and says it is about taking a broader view– it is not simply paperwork and box ticking.
“As employers, part of managing health and safety, is also managing risk. This means identifying risk and hazards and then determining what potential there is for harm. The follow up risk management process needs to eliminate or maintain the adverse effects of risk within an organisation. What concerns me, is how many organisations don’t think about the health of their workers as part of their risk assessment. More organisations should consider the biopsychosocial within their approach to risk management. It is surprising that health and wellbeing are so often forgotten,” says Harriss.
Risk management should encompass safety, worker health, loss prevention, security, fire prevention and environmental impact.
When assessing risk, Professor Anne Harriss says to look at it from all angles, not just from the comfort of a desk.
“Employers and health and safety executives should complete work place visits, meet with staff on site, interview staff and undertake thorough audits. The process of risk assessment and risk management is not rocket science, it includes considering work processes and the control of exposure to any hazards which may impact on the health and general wellbeing of workers. Examples of the types of hazards workers may encounter while on the job include chemicals that may cause dermatitis or occupational asthma and noisy environments which put hearing at risk. Poorly designed work rest cycles are associated with fatigue and heightened accident risk. Fatigue is of particular concern, when coupled with ergonomic hazards such as moving and handling materials, as these increase the risk of the development of musculo-skeletal disorders such as back injuries or repetitive strain disorder. Both work and non-work-related issues may impact mental health. The complex interplay of all these factors has the potential to impact on both worker safety and general health and wellbeing,” says Professor Harriss.
Taking a macro to micro approach, risk management encompasses considering the design and structure of work premises and observing how employees perform their work tasks. It is important to take note of the effectiveness of control measures. The final step inolves evaluating policies and operating procedures.
Dr Beaumont says risk assessment should be a part of all our lives and that we need to be teaching employees to think about their own health and safety.
“We must address health and safety in the workplace using multiple tools, interventions and approaches. Think about including workers in the decision making and tailor programmes and health and safety to their needs. By promoting good health and wellness, not just safety, employers will have happier, more productive, more efficient employees. Let’s put the health back into health and safety,” says Dr Beaumont.