But it is good to think about the future. It depends on how we approach this future though because prospecting about your future can enrich your life.
What is HSE? The “H” in Health, Safety and Environment
This article follows on from my What is HSE? post and is the first in a planned trilogy outlining what I see as the core mission—and business benefits—of each of the titular acronym’s three pillars.
What is Occupational Health?
Firstly, it isn’t a medical job, although it certainly includes medical conditions. It also benefits greatly from input by occupational medical or clinical specialists.
Occupational or workplace health management is essentially about stopping things that make us sick from, or—because of others’ actions or too many tasks, for example—of work. All jobs involve occupational health risk to some degree. Exposure to harmful substances, repetitive motion, poor posture, night shift work, vibration, and dust are just a few things potentially hazardous to one’s health.
Some health hazards are more immediate than others, but all should be assessed, prioritised, and controlled if not eliminated. Doing this is not only the moral and legal thing to do, it avoids cost-to-company.
How? Read on.
How is Occupational Health different from Occupational Safety?
Both professions relate to people—employees, contractors and visitors—at the workplace. Unsurprisingly, there is crossover between the two. For example, a single industrial incident might impact on an individual’s physical integrity (their safety) as well as their mental well-being (their health).
For simplicity, one might consider Health as concerning itself with the prevention of long-term mental or bodily risks that could result in injury or disease. Safety, on the other hand, is about preventing more immediate causality outcomes—cuts, breaks, burns or worse, plus property damage or loss.
Full disclosure: this is an oversimplification. For example, exposing one’s eye to an industrial laser can have immediate health effects (i.e. blindness). On the other hand, an unsafe act may result in coma or even secondary health impacts down the line, such as the shock from an incident triggering a heart attack.
The challenges of Occupational Health Management
Health hazards in the workplace can be subtle and variable. Consider, for example, mental well-being and how each of us reacts differently to any given situation. Then there’s the time factor, and how one’s health might be cumulatively impacted despite individual minor exposures.
This suggests those companies that consistently control their health hazards—even those sources of harm that are less imminent—“get” the value of managing HSE effectively. Indeed, much as I view HSE management as a company’s insurance strategy against associated risks, Health is a long-term affair. The sooner one has cover, the better.
That all said, what do I believe the “H” in HSE is all about? Here we go…
Occupational Health’s Central Mission
The central mission of occupational health management is, in my opinion, to:
Help employees manage stress and maintain their optimal health so they consistently turn up to a safe workplace and are focused and productive in what they do.
Hopefully that doesn’t come across as hippyish, because there’s considerable business benefit (i.e. cost avoidance potential) to that mission being achieved.
Let me elaborate on some of those terms…
Well-being (also welfare or wellness) in this context is about one’s workplace experience and the impact this has on their life as a whole. It’s more than work-life balance, which implies an easy solution—better time management—that’s not necessarily the case.
One doesn’t need to search online for too long before uncovering a recurring theme of increasing worker stress and burnout. Partial causation has even been associated with the blurring of our private and professional lives regardless of one’s time management skills. This has led some governments and companies to enforce an after-hours hiatus from work emails. More need to follow these examples, in my opinion.
Digital tethering to our jobs, however, is just one example of potential harm to health. Workplace stress can be caused by any number of factors, including inappropriate behaviours, career stagnation, excessive workload, and uncertain job security.
Doubtless there are other stress factors to be controlled, but Nixon’s (1982) Human Function Curve says it all: “persistent overloading [without sufficient downtime] causes fatigue followed by exhaustion and then ill-health” (NCBI). That can’t be good for companies as more and more of their employees may be falling into the hidden trap of “presenteeism”—at work but unfocused and unproductive.
Despite obvious disadvantages with companies paying the same salary for reduced employee productivity (plus indirect costs associated with missed deadlines, exhaustion absence, resignations, re-hiring and re-training etc.), workplace stress continues. The value of investing in worker health, it seems, isn’t being seen.
On the other hand, those companies that successfully mitigate extreme stress and worker burnout might just find their workforce re-engaging and rediscovering their talent—and that can only be good for everyone.
Having workplace employee programmes designed to maintain optimal health might sound like a not-so-subtly caveated goal. It is, but only because “being healthy” changes from one person to the next. It should come as no surprise that one’s health changes as we age. Genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors play their part too.
Companies can and should consider this population variation, not only in the formation of targeted health programmes, but also in employee placement and, when work-related ill health does arise, support. The concept is simple: duty of care. The business benefit is equally clear-cut: preventing work-related ill-health helps companies by having one less source of skills loss.
On the talent acquisition end, post-employment placement screening might cause a fair amount of eye-rolling—or raise legitimate concerns about the potential for discrimination. Done properly, however, it enables businesses to place people in positions that do not exacerbate existing conditions, something ultimately leading to ill-health absence, reduced productivity, resignations, or even legal claims.
Given that all of us will face declining health over our lives, and probably before retirement, managing this aspect in the workplace is arguably the very definition of sustainable business practise.
Workplace health is better known as Occupational Hygiene. For those not familiar with this term, it’s is not what that “other guy” at the dentist does to your poor gums every other year.
Occupational (or industrial) hygiene is about the identification and control of workplace risks to peoples’ health. It is the health risks assessments and control that Occupational Safety is undoubtedly better known for.
Providing a workplace free from health impacts isn’t only a common regulatory requirement, it also goes to preventing ill-health-related costs-to-company. Getting this right is “step one” in ill-health prevention and can negate the need for on-going and potentially costly “reactive” programmes.
Occupational Health deals with the control of mental or bodily risks that can result in injury or disease. The effective management of these workplace risks is no different from an insurance policy. Challenges exist, however, both in companies identifying and then acknowledging all sources of harm, as well as the hidden links between some exposures and illnesses.
Getting occupational health management is not easy. This suggests companies who consistently get it right also “get” the value of effective HSE management. They should also see fewer HSE-related avoidable costs on their balance sheets.
Effectively managing workplace health can only be an advantage to companies. Benefits include avoided liability, keeping and acquiring talent, and having engaged and productive employees who turn up every day and work undistracted towards the collective success.
© Nick Hart (2017) All rights reserved.