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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters



Safeguard Magazine

Health Matters—Health drives culture

DAVID BEAUMONT explains why the health of workers should be the focus of building a good workplace culture.

As occupational physicians we see that positive and profitable workplaces are created through good treatment of employees. Where workers are engaged and feel respected and valued by their managers they give more, they go the extra mile, they are more productive. Yet this knowledge is not understood by many workplaces.

The costs of poor workplace culture are still not well understood. Costs are spread across many diverse systems: sickness absence, worker’s compensation, loss of employees’ discretionary effort, healthcare costs, staff turnover, private insurance arrangements, social security, and early retirement.

The association between healthy workplace culture and safe and healthy workers is now clear. So how can government, employers and businesses and workers’ representatives drive the development of positive workplace cultures? There must be a stronger emphasis on good work practices if they are to effect significant cultural change and workplace reform.

In 2011 the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (AFOEM) of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) led the development of the Consensus Statement on the Health Benefits of Work (see healthbenefitsofwork.com). The basic premise of this evidence-based statement is simple: work is generally good for health and wellbeing and long-term worklessness is significantly harmful.

This statement became the starting point for further debate and late last year the RACP launched two position statements: What is Good Work? and Improving Workforce Health and Workplace Productivity.

The fundamental premise behind the question “What is Good Work?” is simple: to move beyond preventing harm, to identify the characteristics of “good work” and actively promote and expand their prevalence, so we can displace “not so good work”.

Good work can be broken down into four basic domains. It:

  • • 
    Engages and partners with workers.
  • • 
    Engages with the culture of the community the workers come from.
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    Respects procedural justice and fairness and is intolerant of discrimination and bullying.
  • • 
    Appropriately balances job demands, job control and job security.

Good work can create a virtuous cycle whereby workers are healthier, more engaged and feel more valued, adding to a positive culture and improving productivity. The evidence shows that workplaces engaged in effective workplace culture reform can achieve 200% productivity gains and enhanced health and safety performance.

The benefits of this approach are even greater when considering the alternative. Unhealthy workplace cultures result in:

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    Workers with greater levels of physical and mental ill health.
  • • 
    More workplace accidents.
  • • 
    More and longer sickness absence.
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    High costs of injury compensation and ACC levies.
  • • 
    High levels of presenteeism – workers are there but they’re just not productive.

It also engenders a climate where bullying is tolerated. Nearly 20% of workers in the health and education sectors report having felt bullied in the previous six months. The high levels of staff turnover all this produces lead to increased costs in recruitment and training. And where do sick workers go? Many become sickness beneficiaries, adding to the sickness benefit bill of $2 billion a year. The government blueprint Working Safer points out that occupational illness and injury is thought to cost the country $3.5 billion per annum while in Australia it’s $60.6 billion, or 4.8% of GDP. On a national level the business case for change is clear, but the challenge is to influence individual companies.

Of course, we are at the start of a change in our approach to OHS, driven by changes to legislation and enforced by a new regulator. This process will be a major driver for change for employers, who are uncertain of the implications. What is clear is that responsibility will go straight to the board, and right now this issue has their attention. But this cannot simply be a matter of complying with legislation; rather it should be about doing the right thing to positively influence the health of workers. The good news is that there isn’t a down side:

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    Healthy workers are more productive.
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    That translates to the bottom line as profit.
  • • 
    The cost of getting it wrong is massive.
  • • 
    Good health is good business.

This creates an opportunity for all OHS professionals to deliver a positive message to employers as a driver for investment in developing services. The fundamental principle is that the health of workers should be the focus of workplace culture.

Central Otago-based DR DAVID BEAUMONT is medical director of Fit For Work Ltd and president-elect of the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

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