Businesses are realizing that they need to look at their employees’ health in a holistic manner.

The need for a more holistic approach to worker health and safety is gaining momentum across North American workplaces. It is now recognized that the traditional transactional approach to safety, where the focus is simply on assessing hazards, doing inspections, providing worker training, and investigating incidents, is not working. The fatality rate and disabling injury rate in Canada has not changed in the last decade. A novel approach is needed if we are going to make progress, make workplaces safer, and save lives.

The idea of needing to think more broadly about workers’ health is really not new. In July, 2008, a roundtable convened by the Commission on Health and Safety and Workers’ Compensation in Oakland, Calif., created a document called The Whole Worker. It gives guidance on integrating occupational health and safety and workplace wellness programs.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the U.S. has also been working to fully integrate the idea of worker health into the overall effort to manage occupational health and safety. NIOSH is the United States federal agency responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related injury and illness. Its efforts have created the Office for Total Worker Health and a series of NIOSH Centers of Excellence for Total Worker Health. The organization has already developed mechanisms for outreach including hosting the first International symposium on Total Worker Health in 2014. The second annual Total Worker Health Symposium will be on May 8-11 in Bethesda, Md.

Work on the idea of total worker health has been ongoing for almost a decade now but for many in Canada the idea of this may be new. Health is one of the most important and yet complex issues organizations face today. The workplace has a significant influence on worker health both in terms of job conditions that may threaten or protect workers’ health and safety, and how our jobs promote or interfere with individual wellness.

Traditionally, occupational safety and health safety professionals and practitioners have developed and supported focused programming that primarily concentrated on ensuring workers are protected from the harms that arise from work itself. In more progressive workplaces, the focus also includes more integrated programming that considers the long-term or chronic risks associated with workplaces, which includes risks of disease due to chronic chemical exposure and chronic injury due to repetitive motion and other ergonomic hazards.

So, what is total worker health (TWH)? It is defined by NIOSH as the policies, programs, and practices that integrate protection from work-related health and safety hazards with promotion of injury and illness prevention efforts to advance worker well-being. Total worker health builds on this approach. It is increasingly obvious that work is one of the more important social determinants of health.

There are many job-related factors effecting workers’ health such as rate of pay; shift length and schedule; physical and mental workload; resultant stress levels; interactions between workers, supervisors, and the public; and access to paid leave. A wide range of health-promoting activities can all impact workers’ total health. It is well recognized that workplaces can have an important impact on the well-being of workers, their families, and the communities they serve. TWH includes managing and enhancing these four pillars:

  1. Physical – provision of health risk assessment, plus biometrics, medical, lifestyle, and body-mass index (BMI).
  2. Mental – general mental health, development of coping skills, management of anxiety and depression, and prevention of burn-out.
  3. Work – perceived stress, productivity, work experience, engagement, and management of risk of workplace injury.
  4. Life – financial security, relationships, and work-life integration.

The idea of integrating total worker health programming alongside or with existing occupational health and safety programming is relatively new in Canada. Increasingly, the safety community will need to work with business leaders to make worker health a priority. TWH involves the integration of workplace interventions that protect safety and health with activities that advance the overall well-being of workers. Establishing policies, programs, and practices within the workplace that focus on advancing the safety, health and well-being of the work force may be helpful for individuals, their families, communities, employers and the economy.

TWH yields great benefits for workers. It explores opportunities to both protect workers from hazards and advance their health and well-being by targeting the conditions of work. Many occupational health and safety professionals have long worked to identify and manage workplace risk factors. Working with occupational health specialists, the TWH approach includes considering factors previously ignored because they were thought to be unrelated to work.

These risk factors include such issues as abnormal weight fluctuations, sleep disorders, cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression, and other health conditions. They are now included as factors to be managed as part of a TWH programming. TWH considers the broader framework of the workplace and includes both environmental and organizational factors that can enhance or diminish employee health.

There remains some big challenges ahead to change minds and move towards this more holistic approach to worker health and safety in Canada. What is needed is an integrated approach and effort by all occupational health and safety professionals and practitioners to work with business leaders to make the extra effort, start the conversation, and continue to work hard to increase the momentum of the total health movement across North American workplaces.

Originally posted on by Glyn Jones

Published on February 27, 2018