First, the bad news: the figures are alarming
The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that around 2 million people die every year due to work-related accidents and illnesses. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 160 million new cases of work-related illnesses each year. Every three-and-a-half minutes one person dies in the European Union because of this, and every four-and-a-half seconds a worker in the EU will suffer an accident or illness which will force them to stay at home for at least three days.
We have ever more efficient ways of preventing and fighting illness but, as medicine advances, there is a growing perception that health isn’t simply something that we have, but something we must look after. And for this we must nurture it, by controlling stress and anxiety levels, sleeping adequate hours, eating properly and doing regular exercise. Health is something we do not think of or value when we have it, but which we appreciate hugely when we do not.
As such, promoting and protecting health is essential for any organization, whatever its size or purpose. Many are making an effort together with employees and society to improve people’s health and welfare in the workplace, promoting active participation and encouraging individual development. All actions that help people adopt and maintain healthy lifestyles and that are conducive to healthy environments are key.
Dr. María Neira, WHO Director of Public Health and the Environment, believes that ‘The value of a company depends on the health of its workers.’
This assertion, which seems obvious in itself, leads to the conclusion that an organization that cares about (and takes care of) the health of its employees is, in fact, making a SMART decision.
Why work in healthy workplaces?
To answer this, perhaps we should first respond to another question: Why bother creating healthy work environments in the first place? While for employees and employee representatives it is a matter of personal interest, why should employers care about providing healthy workplaces?
A healthy company provides huge value to employees and their environment. In general, the business world tends to reflect what’s happening in society as a whole. Health problems end up affecting the working population through factors such as longer working hours; shorter lunch breaks, which forces employees to eat out, often in less healthy conditions; increased stress due to the generalised introduction of new technology; intensification of work, etc.
In a healthy organization, the work environment allows employees to make use of their full potential. This not only implies a responsible management of health and safety risks, but also opportunities for employees to grow and develop professionally. All of which requires teamwork and advice from occupational health and safety specialists.
Good news: there are some positive trends
Numbers in favour of companies driving healthy habits are overwhelming. According to the European Network for Workplace Health Promotion, improving workers’ health practices can reduce absenteeism by up to 36%, and for every Euro invested in health promotion a return of between 2.5 and 4.8 Euros is obtained. The cost of depression, exhaustion or insomnia is four times higher than the cost of preventing it.
So we can agree with the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work that investing in health is good for business.
Four measures for boosting employee welfare at work
A healthy work environment is one where employees and employers work together on a process of continuous improvement to protect the health, safety and welfare of all workers and create a sustainable workplace.
This means that organizations must take the following considerations into account:
- Health and safety issues in the physical work environment: The physical work environment refers to the structure, air, machinery, furniture, chemical products, production materials and processes used at work. These factors can affect both the physical health and safety of employees, and their mental health and welfare. An employee working outdoors or in a vehicle has that location as his/her physical work environment. And so we can see that the location itself has certain risks which must be suppressed, addressed or controlled, depending on the situation.
- Health, safety and welfare issues in the psychosocial work environment: The psychosocial work environment includes organization at work, institutional culture and attitudes, values, beliefs and daily practices in the company, all of which can affect employee mental and physical welfare. All of these are potential stress factors which may cause employees emotional or mental stress. Clear examples are awards and recognition, but also time pressures, inefficient planning of tasks, abuse, intimidation, discrimination, lack of support or fear of losing the job. A company must address such situations by decreasing or suppressing risks and protecting employees by providing resources and emotional support, improving communications, awareness-raising, reassigning tasks to reduce work load, etc.
- Personal health resources in the workplace: These consist of an adequate environment, health services, information, resources, opportunities and the flexibility offered by the company with the aim of supporting or motivating employee efforts to improve or maintain a healthy lifestyle and monitor and support their current state of physical and mental health. Some risks of note are long working hours, a lack of flexibility and time to do exercise, the impossibility of having healthy meals because of insufficient time, not having access to a fridge to store healthy food, smoking, or lack of primary healthcare. To improve these and other situations, the company should provide medical services, information, training and financial support, facilitate access to exercise or workout facilities, provide or facilitate access to healthy food in the cafeteria or vending machines, ban smoking and implement programmes to stop smoking, etc.
- Engaging with the community to improve the health of employees, their families and other members of the community: Employees live in a community, and their health is therefore affected by the physical and social environment in such communities. Company engagement with a community includes company activities and the specialized knowledge and other resources it brings to the community or communities in which they work – taking into account both physical and social aspects –, all of which can affect the physical and mental health, safety and welfare of employees and their families. In this sense, the company can decide to provide support and contribute resources for offering free or partly-financed primary health services, promote gender equality policies in the workplace to protect and support women and similar policies for the protection of other vulnerable groups, as well as provide leadership and specialized knowledge on occupational health and safety.