The recent conference of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) gave considerable attention to corporate social responsibility (CSR). It could be argued that this shows the ASSE is years behind many others but it could also be argued that CSR has a practical longevity in workplace safety that may have faded in other CSR areas.
A recent article in Health Education, “Workplace health promotion within small and medium-sized enterprises” may provide some clues for forward planning on mental health, wellbeing and OHS. The authors* write:
“There needs to be a clear distinction between activities focused purely on internal business management and those with a wider public health impact. Consideration needs to be given to human resource policies and procedures, as these are beyond employees’ personal control, yet have a direct and indirect effect on their working life and the smooth running of the business they work for.”
This should give greater confidence to HR practitioners that the “soft sciences” of human resources are an important element of corporate wellbeing and profitability but there is also a clear indication from the article that various organisational elements need to “play well” with each other in order to achieve the potential benefits; and here is the challenge.
“There is a lack of awareness of the importance organizational and environmental activities play in addressing the wider determinants of workplace health within the SME context.”
The safety and HR professions need more formal integration or, at least, greatly increased overlap in their strategic planning in order to meet the contemporary health needs of the workforce. It is important to watch out for the over-emphasis on health promotion as this can distract into marketing rather than the attainment of real change but the authors say
“In marketing WHP activities, strategists, practitioners and educationalists need to focus not only on legislative health and safety, occupational health and lifestyle activities, but also the benefits both for SME businesses and their employees from human resource policies and procedures, training and development and environmental practices.”
Both HR and OHS disciplines advocate a “holistic” approach in order to meet the health and safety challenges of the modern workforce but continue to operate in professional silos of the type they are trying to dismantle.
The Health Education article builds on the impetus for change in workplaces generated in Europe by The Luxembourg Declaration of 1997 and 2005. The United States and other countries, such as Australia, have been slow to include mental health or, more generally, welfare into their OHS strategies partly because OHS remains linked (some would say mired) to legislative obligations rather than commercial realities of productivity, profitability long-term benefits, as mentioned above.
With so much discussion (and waffle) about cultural change in and outside of workplaces, it would seem that considerable political and economic benefits could be gained by advocating a unified approach to health, safety and welfare that focusses on the person rather than the work or the public health sectors. The expansion of the definition of the workplace in Australia’s proposed OHS laws may assist in this tactic. The trap could be that much of the research undertaken on these matters comes under Workplace Health Promotion rather than Workplace Health Change. Being aware that something is hazardous does not reduce the danger. Only controlling the hazard can remove the danger.
A reassessment of CSR in a smaller, more local application may be just the boost that is required to introduce real change. Tweaking an established concept is often a shorter path to change than introducing somethign new.
* “Workplace health promotion within small and medium-sized enterprises”, Health Education, Volume 1 Number 10, 2010.
The authors are Ann Moore, Kader Parahoo and Paul Fleming.