Health and wellbeing

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Roxane L. Gervais, Health & Safety Laboratory

Introduction

Health and wellbeing are essential elements to increase and/or maintain employee performance, productivity, job satisfaction and engagement within the work environment. This article presents an overview of the differences in the interpretation of the terms, while acknowledging that these differences arise due to cultural and organisational interpretation of workplace practices. In addition, it highlights organisations' promotion of policies to improve or increase health and wellbeing in the workplace. Effective policies and practices could lead to healthy employees with a high state of wellbeing, which benefits both the organisation and the wider society.

Health and wellbeing: An overview

Health and wellbeing are two concepts that are prominent within the field of occupational safety and health (OSH). There are different interpretations of these concepts across the European Union (EU) [1] [2], which strengthen the importance of assessing it more consistently within the work environment. In considering the concept of wellbeing within the EU it was proposed that ‘wellbeing results from the fulfilment of the important needs of individuals and the realisation of goals and plans set for one's life’. [3] Other definitions of the term include seeing it ‘as peoples’ positive evaluations of their lives, (as it) includes positive emotion, engagement, satisfaction, and meaning’. [4] These definitions are useful in understanding the concept, but they should not be used as a definitive focus in moving forward with the term, as wellbeing seems also to rely highly on culture and organisational foci.

Institutes across the EU are working together to gain consensus on the term and thereby gain a working definition. [5] [6] [7] Any unified term would need to take account of the fact that: a) ‘Wellbeing at work cannot be brought about simply by way of health and safety policy: there are strong links with the way work equipment is designed, with employment policy, with policy on disabled people, and with other policies like transport and, of course, health policy in general, whether it be preventative or curative,’ [8] with wellbeing at work b) ‘…being taken to mean physical, moral and social wellbeing, and not just something that can be measured by an absence of accidents or occupational illnesses.’ [9]

Research has focused recently on the positive aspects of wellbeing at work, leading to the observation that facets such as self-acceptance, autonomy, growth, purpose in life, positive relationships with others, environmental mastery and personal growth could assist with a reduction in depression. [10] As such, when individuals are able to display more positive affects, such as enthusiasm and excitement rather than negative affects, such as nervousness and fear, this allows them to remain healthy and well.

The concept of health has a ‘cleaner’ perspective due to the established definitions by international organisations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), which sees it as, ‘… a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.’ [11]. In addition, both the WHO and the International Labour Organization (ILO), have defined occupational health as, ‘…the promotion and maintenance of the highest degree of physical, mental and social wellbeing of workers in all occupations; the prevention amongst workers of departures from health caused by their working conditions; the protection of workers in their employment from risks resulting from factors adverse to health; the placing and maintenance of the worker in an occupational environment adapted to his physiological and psychological capabilities and; to summarise: the adaptation of work to man and of each man to his job’. [12]. All of these definitions are similar in how they interpret the terms, and in recent times, the two terms are used jointly when discussing the welfare of employees.

There are many benefits that occur at the personal and organisational levels when individuals attain better wellbeing. These include increased job satisfaction, which could in turn lead to higher customer satisfaction as well as increased productivity and profitability; increased longevity, healthier immune systems resulting in resistance to diseases, lower levels of mental disorders and better social relationships. [13] Other benefits reported, include extended work careers, later retirement, a decrease in absence from work, workplace image, profit, quality, competitiveness, mutual respect, initiative, better career options, increased motivation, better work and leisure, and lower stress levels. [14]

Due to the ageing of working populations and a reduction in overall population growth, it is very important to address the health and wellbeing concerns of older workers, and this should be specific to the worker and his/her work situation. For example, one of the proposed ways to improve the health and wellbeing of ageing shift workers is by improving their occupational health care and to promote the use of appropriate coping mechanisms. [15] [16] Another way is to assess the ‘workability’ of older workers, but this could be done at any age, as it considers the balance between an individual’s resources, such as health, values and attitudes and his/her work demands (physical and mental), thereby allowing her/him to work longer by decreasing work-related disability and premature retirement. [17] [18]

There is sufficient evidence that psychosocial stressors (e.g. such as excessive work demands) could increase job strain and thereby adversely impact on health and wellbeing. [19] Other factors in the work environment that contribute to ill health and lower levels of wellbeing are the lack of control [20] #Link to OSH wiki article: Psychosocial issues – Psycho-social risk factors (ERO-10-06-e11)# and a ‘poor fit’ between the work schedule and individual preferences for working hours. [21]

The cost of ill health and poor wellbeing to organisations

Health is a basic human value, and within OSH, it should be seen as a business value and a value for employees. However, cost-benefit analysis is lacking within interventions[22] so it is difficult to get a ‘true’ value of the costs of ill health and lower levels of wellbeing. Further, health policies in companies and in national companies tend to focus on the output side of the process, such as disease, cure and return to work programmes as these provide short-term financial benefits, but may not necessarily lead to healthy organisations; healthy organisations see health as essential to the business with health management core to their business excellence and sustainability. [23]

There is a suggestion to categorise the cost of health and wellbeing, to assess both macroeconomic costs and microeconomic costs. Macroeconomic costs occur at a national level or for a given economic sector. These costs are usually expressed as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP), i.e. as health care costs. Microeconomic costs recognise the sum of money that is spent by businesses (i.e. salary, insurance costs, lost productivity), and consists of two sub-categories: the cost of absenteeism and the cost of presenteeism. [24]

Despite these categories, it is important to note that the cost of health and wellbeing extends beyond the cost of absence or of poor performance, [25] but should be seen more holistically in achieving improvements within all aspects of the organisation. In 2006, the costs of ill health at the micro level in the UK for example, when considered from the overall annual cost of employee turnover that was attributable to stress and mental health was estimated to be around £1.35 billion. [26] The true cost of presenteeism is more difficult to estimate. When one aspect of cost is estimated at the EU level, the data show that every year, 4.9 million accidents lead to more than 3 days’ absence from work; with the cost of accidents at work and occupational illness ranging for most countries from 2.6 to 3.8% of their Gross National Product (GNP). [27]

Promoting health and wellbeing at work

This section will explore some typical programmes within organisations with a focus on the effects of such programmes and their limitations. The focus of wellbeing at the organisational level is especially useful as it facilitates a healthy work organisation, i.e. one wherein the culture, climate and practices produce an environment that ensures employee safety and health as well as organisational effectiveness. [28]

Various ways to improve on health and wellbeing have been promoted. These include those at the organisational level, such as looking at the person-environment fit (i.e. that the demands of the organisation correspond to the abilities of the employee), facilitating social support (i.e. supervisory practices), reducing ambiguity (i.e. structuring the organisation to ensure goal setting, work planning, performance appraisal and job and career planning are in place), and improving on coping behaviour (i.e. behavioural modelling to increase an employee’s coping strategies). [29] Interventions at the organisational level have dual functions, to reduce ill health as well as to promote positive wellbeing at work. [30]

When remaining at the organisational level, but this time taking a holistic approach and aiming for a psychologically healthy workplace, i.e. one with a focus on work-life balance, health and safety, employee growth and development, employee recognition, employee involvement and communication, has been endorsed as suitable in facilitating health and wellbeing among employees. [31] See Figure 1. This holistic approach ensures that the employee is part of the process, i.e. the bottom-up approach, rather than having a stronger managerial perspective, i.e. the top-down approach. Worker involvement allows also the employees’ work experience to be examined, and this is based on the assumption that the quality of experiences at work, either positive or negative would have direct and indirect health consequences on the worker. [32] Employee involvement ensures that an intervention or programme will meet the needs of the worker, will achieve the desired outcome and will evolve as employees provide feedback to the process. [33] However, employee involvement is less likely to occur when a) the organisational structure is one with centralised resources and hierarchical chains of command that reduce information dissemination, innovation, decision quality and the ability for employees to provide input into problem solving; b) a top-down management structure enforces managerial resistance that negates the positive impact of employee involvement practices; c) organisations have a cost-reduction strategy that leads to formulaic processes and predictable behaviours from employees; and d) organisations have a climate that does not promote employee involvement. [34]


Figure 1: The psychologically healthy workplace

20120531 WE-11-15-12 Health WellBeing PHWP Diagram 2008 Figure02.jpg


Source: © 2008 American Psychological Association. Used with permission. For more information about APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, visit www.phwa.org[35]


Interventions at the organisational level may raise challenges for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). While larger organisations may use external consultants to implement the interventions, or have in-house resources to facilitate this process, SMEs may have neither the resources nor the interest in such a process. [36] Further, due to the limited numbers of employees in SMEs, this limits the types of screening methods that could be used, such as questionnaires, due to the ethical and statistical issues involved. [37]

When interventions are implemented at the individual level, they can include increasing job control for employees, which has been a core component in many of the work organisational models promoted over the last sixty years and one that has been linked to improvements in mental health and absence rates. [38] There is evidence that a reduction in decision latitude, which is lower control in how decisions are made by individuals, may be linked with an increased risk of developing myocardial infarction among middle-aged men and public sector employees. [39] [40]

Recent research has shown the benefits of taking ‘alternative’ approaches to reducing stress at the workplace and thereby increasing wellbeing. One of these approaches is allowing employees to bring their pets to work, with the presence of pets showing reduced stress levels among pet owners when compared to non-pet owners[41] Other interventions at the individual level could focus on promoting the seven health practices. These practices have been shown to predict future mortality rates, morbidity and disability and include: [42] 1. Sleeping 7 to 8 hours daily. 2. Eating breakfast almost every day. 3. Never or rarely eating between meals. 4. Currently being at or near prescribed health-adjusted weight. 5. Regular physical activity. 6. Never smoking cigarettes. 7. Moderate or no use of alcohol.

Interventions based on one or more of these practices could be applied within SMEs, especially as they are not resource intensive.

Some of the reasons proposed for the ineffective use of organisational interventions include: that the job strain goes unnoticed; that interventions are discussed but not made operational and thereby do not directly affect individual employees and that if short-term results are not realised than it is difficult to sustain the intervention over the long-term when more sustainable results would be realised. [43] Other concerns surround the negative synergies that could develop when managers implement one practice to address physical wellbeing, such as the introduction of a new safety policy, with employees’ perceiving that this new policy decreases their autonomy and they do not comply, thereby leading to a reduction in their psychological wellbeing. [44]

It is preferable to aim for the occurrence of positive wellbeing synergies when managerial practices impact positively on multiple dimensions of employee wellbeing, i.e. social wellbeing and psychological wellbeing. [45]

Evaluating the standard of wellbeing at work

The method below is one that organisations can use to evaluate their standard of wellbeing at work. It is a self-applied matrix that outlines three criteria for each standard of wellbeing: Good practice, High standard practice and Excellent practice. Depending on the results that an organisation obtains, it can prioritise its goals for improving wellbeing at its workplace.

The matrix compares six categories of work activities against the three listed criteria that facilitate quality management:

The self-evaluation matrix is designed primarily for SMEs and uses a scoring system to determine the standard that gives the best match in each of the work categories. Organisations record a lower score if more activities are needed to match the criteria in that category for a particular standard and record a higher score if all or nearly all the criteria are fulfilled in the workplace.

The individual scores are added and the sum compared to those for the three functional standards: a score of 6-17 points indicates ‘good practice’, 18-24 points indicates ‘high-standard practice’ and 25-36 points indicates ‘excellent practice’. The sum of the scores for each individual category gives a general view of the standard of wellbeing at work activities in the organisation, but the calculated scores do not have an absolute value and are not recommended for benchmarking.

Table 1 shows the scoring for the six categories while Table 2 gives, as an example, the criteria for the category ‘work environment and assuring business activities’. The full self-evaluation matrix is given in Appendix 1 of the FIOH report. [46]. The evaluation matrix is also available as a computer-based tool for organisations to evaluate their standard of wellbeing at work.

Table 1: Criteria for each standard

Functional standard
Good practice 1 High standard practice 2 Excellent practice 3
Work environment and assuring business activities More activities are needed. (1) More activities are needed. (3) More activities are needed. (5)
All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled. (2) All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled. (4) All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled. (6)
Functioning of work community, management and communication More activities are needed (1) More activities are needed (3) More activities are needed (5)
All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled. (2) All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled. (4) All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled. (6)
Organisation of work More activities are needed. (1) More activities are needed. (3) More activities are needed. (5)
All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled. (2) All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled (4 All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled (6)
Promotion of work ability and health at the workplace More activities are needed. (1) More activities are needed. (3) More activities are needed. (5)
All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled. (2) All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled. (4) All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled. (6)
Competence development More activities are needed. (1) More activities are needed. (3) More activities are needed. (5)
All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled. (2) All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled. (4) All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled. (6)
Productivity More activities are needed. (1) More activities are needed. (3) More activities are needed. (5)
All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled. (2) All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled. (4) All (or nearly all) of the criteria are fulfilled. (6)

Notes: Points scored given in brackets. 1 Basics are under control, legislation is followed; 1–2 points. 2 Proactive planning and implementation of programmes; 3–4 points. 3 Comprehensive and systematic activities, best practices, use of quality system; 5–6 points. Source: Anttonen & Räsänen, 2008, p. 26[47] [48]



Table 2: Example from self-evaluation matrix of criteria for one category

Functional standard Work environment and assuring business activities
Good practice Basics are under control, legislation is followed (1-2 points) Crucial areas in occupational health and safety of personnel are identified (work environment risks are assessed.

Company has a safety plan for action in case of emergency.

Disaster risks and risks of other emergency and crisis situations are identified and mapped. Specific responsibilities in emergency situations are documented and personnel are trained.

Workplace is clean and orderly.

Maintenance of machines is arranged and protective equipment is available.

High standard practice Proactive planning and implementation of programmes (3–4 points) There is proactive identification of hazards and risk assessment in the workplace.

Company has prepared for emergency and crisis situations by holding regular rehearsals and training at 2–3-year intervals, updating the plan as necessary.

Health and safety requirements for operations are defined by management and made known to personnel.

A zero accident policy is realised in the development and cooperation at the workplace (actions promoting safety at workplace are planned and realised together with various personnel groups).

Excellent practice Comprehensive and systematic activities, best practice, use of quality system (5–6 points) The organisation has a comprehensive system for development and control of the quality of health and safety such as OHSAS 18001.

The safety culture is analysed and developed together with employees. Safety inspections are planned and made at regular intervals, with management participating. Major changes are followed by an inspection where the effects of change and the success of its implementation are evaluated. Staff are committed to continuous health and safety improvement in the workplace. The results of the activities are compared to the results of the other companies (benchmarking).

Source: Anttonen & Räsänen, 2008, p. 32 [49] [50]

Of course, any interventions at the individual or the organisational level should be evaluated continuously as part of the wider process; but this is yet to be consistent. [51]

Conclusions

Work is important for individuals. It helps them to maintain their health and wellbeing and is essential for economies to survive. However, as conditions with the work environment may (in)advertently negatively impact on employees, it is essential that organisations continuously monitor their environment for unsafe and unhealthy work practices, as well as promoting a positive work environment to improve on and sustain the health and wellbeing of their employees.

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Links for further reading

Booth, P., and the Pursuit of Happiness: Wellbeing and the Role of Government, Institute of Economic Affairs, 2012. Available at: http://www.iea.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/files/IEA%20Pursuit%20of%20Happiness%20web.pdf

CSR Europe, Tips for Implementing a Successful Wellbeing Strategy, 2012. Available at: http://www.csreurope.org/data/files/toolbox/wellbeing_tips1.pdf

CSR Europe (2012). Wellbeing in the Workplace for Ageing Employees. Retrieved on 09 April 2012, from: http://www.csreurope.org/pages/en/wellbeing_in_the_workplace_for_ageing_employees.html

CSR Europe, Wellbeing in the Workplace. A Guide with Best Practices and Tips for Implementing a Successful Wellbeing Strategy at Work, 2012. Available at: http://www.csreurope.org/data/files/toolbox/wellbeing_guide.pdf

DWP - Department for Work and Pensions (no date). Workplace Well-being Tool. Retrieved on 09 April 2012, from: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/health-work-and-well-being/our-work/workplace-well-being-tool/

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (no date). EU-OSHA’s Workplace Health promotion. Retrieved on 09 April 2012, from: http://osha.europa.eu/en/topics/whp

EUROFOUND - the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. Well-being at work: innovation and good practice. Retrieved on 20 July 2012, from: http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/ewco/2011/06/FI1106011I.htm

Nef - the new economics foundation (2011). A Toolkit for Well-being. Retrieved on 09 April 2012, from: http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/a-toolkit-for-well-being

Prospect (2012). WorkTime YourTime. Retrieved on 09 April 2012, from: http://www.prospect.org.uk/campaigns_and_events/national_campaigns/worktimeyourtime/index?_ts=7375

Contributors

Deroiste, Klaus Kuhl, Palmer