If worker engagement is lacking, reassess the product

Australian companies continue to introduce workplace wellness programs when the evidence for their effectiveness is still weak.  A major reason for this weakness is that many workers do not see health and wellness as part of the workplace’s role. It is also a problem that the American motivation for workplace wellness is not relevant to Australia.

What’s perhaps more worrying is that wellness programs often get more prominence than occupational health and safety interventions that do work but are less “sexy”.

A March 2016 article in EHS Today illustrates some of these issues.

Workplace wellness programs were

“Designed to improve employee health while also cutting health care costs,…”

Workplaces have always been a conduit for health awareness notices for both occupational and public health but the American motivation was to reduce health care costs which are usually part of a US workers conditions of employment.  Some employees of US-based companies in Australia had similar working conditions.  This business cost placed health care into an industrial relations context that health should perhaps never be placed.  This context is possibly also part of the hesitation that US workers have in participating.

The EHS Today article includes this quote:

“”The issue with current workplace wellness programs is that they just haven’t had success in getting employees to actually engage,” says Nebeyou Abebe, senior director of health and wellbeing at Sodexo. “If you look at what’s being offered today in terms of workplace wellness, most programs are failing largely because employees aren’t engaged, aren’t taking advantage of the programs available to them by their employers.””

The article goes on to explain a new program designed to improve employee engagement.  The initiative seems to have merit but what it also illustrates is that workplace wellness is now an entrenched element of American business.  America seems to not have the option that Australia and the United Kingdom has where the lack of engagement should encourage a reassessment of the wellness programs that the workers are being asked to engage with.  Perhaps the problem is not with the engagement but with the wellness push!

Many of the workplace wellness programs in Australia try to link good health with productivity improvements. In terms of OHS many also claim that wellness programs can reduce the recovery time after a workplace injury.  The problem with these linkages is that  workplace wellbeing programs do not exist in isolation and therefore the direct link between a specific intervention and improved safety is almost impossible to prove.

As mentioned in the recent Cabbage Salad and Safety podcast, wellbeing programs and other initiatives that focus on the individual worker are attractive to employers as it shows that they are doing something to improve working conditions but it is not necessarily the most effective initiative.

A recent article in BusinessInsurance.com indicates that the wellness strategies in the United States are evolving from the physical health area into the workplace psychosocial.  The list of training and support elements show that the focus remains on the individual’s mental health and coping mechanisms.  There  is no mention of organisational change or even self-assessment and the programs continue to struggle with participation rates and worker engagement

Al Lewis and Vik Khanna in their 2014 (US) book “Surviving Workplace Wellness with your Dignity, Finances and Major Organs Intact” summarised individual wellness to three basic elements that are difficult to contest:

  • “Stop smoking
  • Eat better
  • Get off your butt”.

This advice remains sound for physical health but additional recommendations are required for workplace mental health but, as we have seen from earlier, Australian, research and guidance the primary causes of workplace stress and other psychosocial hazards are organisational.  Any wellness strategy that fails to consider or integrate organisational change is likely to only offer short term, unsustainable symptomatic relief.

Regardless of what many safety consultants say, OHS is difficult because it deals with people and business operations.  To improve workplace safety there must be an adjustable relationship between these two occupational factors. People are supposed to be as productive as possible in order to improve the sustainability of a company and maximise their returns through salary and satisfaction. Is a workplace wellness program the best way to achieve this?  Could it be improved through better work machinery? Could it be through increased labour resources or a reasonable wage?

Work is complex and so OHS is complex.  Workplace wellness is also complex but too many people seem to promote “simple” solutions and too many businesses accept these solutions.  Wellness, as is OHS, is part of the work relationship which is itself part of the social structure.  And these social structures vary from country to country and, often, from State to State.

The internet and social media has increased the connectivity of millions of people around the world, increasing our access to knowledge.  However the knowledge origins remain dominated by the United States and the knowledge reflects the economic arrangements and conflicts of that country.  OHS professionals must be more discerning of this knowledge.  Just as you check a can of food for its country of origin, the source of knowledge should also be checked, particularly in the area of workplace wellness.

Kevin Jones

Categories business, hazards, health, insurance, OHS, productivity, safety, wellness, workplace

3 thoughts on “If worker engagement is lacking, reassess the product”

  1. Wellness programs are a crock. Been in a number of workplaces where differing approaches were tried. Some exercises resulted in injuries and therefore resulted in workers compensation. What a joke regarding safety. It set some large people into a guilt trip. Simple 30 minute walk at lunch time was rejected as not beneficial enough. No phycological support. Short term results and no ongoing support. Drastic changes with supplied lunches for training with no fat but lots of sugar. There I have vented.

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