Building healthy organisations

2 October, 2014  |  News


"Creating a healthy workplace is more likely to have spinoffs for safety than creating a safe workplace will have spinoffs for health," Canadian consultant Graham Lowe told the OHSIG conference in Auckland last month.

Citing research he and his team conducted among Alberta healthcare workers, he said they discovered a number of factors - teamwork, fair processes, learning opportunities, supportive supervisors, leadership - created a safety culture, and that people who experienced such a culture were also more engaged with their work.

"It's more than just safety culture," he told OHSIG delegates. "We are describing a truly healthy, high-performing workplace where people look forward to coming to work."

In another study, among healthcare workers in Ontario hospitals, they grouped people's engagement into high, medium and low levels. Those in the highly engaged group told the researchers that their work hadn't caused them injury or illness; but half the members of the low group said their work had contributed to injury or illness.

The conclusion, he said, is that there is something about being engaged that contributes to better health and safety. "Here's a conversation starter with your HR colleagues - ask them how their engagement strategy is going. Talk to them about finding some synergies with the health and safety programme."

Stepping back a little, Lowe, president of The Graham Lowe Group, said employers in Canada are moving away from stand-alone programmes (smoking cessation, flu shots) and towards a more comprehensive package of wellness initiatives. However some leading-edge employers, thinking strategically, now want to move beyond a healthy workplace to achieve a healthy organisation, for a bigger alphat on business performance.

"In Canada the language has shifted but it is almost entirely aspirational. They are talking about it but they haven't figured out the path to take."

Lowe says mounting evidence - "tons of it" - suggests the path is to make the connection between health & safety and employee engagement. Engagement is driven by job satisfaction, having manageable levels of stress, and job performance. The very same conditions that contribute to increased job performance, he said, also contribute to psychological wellbeing and a culture of safety.

"There's a very strong connection between people's working experience and their health and safety performance."

Lowe used a phrase beloved of safety practitioners - root cause analysis - to tie it all together. To create a truly healthy and sustainable organisation, he said, it is not sufficient to look at symptoms like absenteeism, presenteeism, LTI values, and staff turnover; it is necessary to dig down to root causes.

He cited the successful Four Seasons hotel and resort chain, which originated in Canada, and whose founders wrote recently in a book that they attributed their success to a simple value: that they encouraged all their staff to treat each other as they would like to be treated themselves - a philosophy that transcends all religions and cultures.

"It's a principle worth thinking about," said Lowe. "Build a clearly articulated culture based on strong values, and you will have a safe, healthy, high-performing workplace." He acknowledged that talk of values could provoke a cynical reaction unless they were brought to life in a genuine way and used as a guide to daily behaviour. The two most important elements for health, safety and wellness, he maintained, are respect and two-way communications.

"It's profoundly simple. You don't need more budget. Yet so many organisations find it challenging."

Canadian employers are now moving beyond looking at return on investment from their wellness programmes and are thinking about a "return on values" - that is, by investing in health, safety and wellbeing they are reinforcing the organisation's values and demonstrating to employees that they care; they are showing their corporate values are being put into practice.

Lowe listed his four steps to a "wellness dividend" as:

  • View wellbeing as a leading indicator of future workforce capabilities.
  • Boost morale by promoting wellbeing.
  • Encourage a culture of health and safety through employee participation and ownership.
  • Integrate wellness actions and goals into your engagement policy.

"As health and safety experts you are in the perfect position to influence the future of your organisations. Figure out some simple actions you can take to be a really effective change agent."

Source: Alert24, 6 Oct 2014, www.safeguard.co.nz