By Linda Eroke
The need for organisations to focus on programmes and policies that promote healthy workplaces cannot be over-emphasised as a healthy work environment not only benefits employees through improved health and wellness, it also benefit employers by increasing productivity, improving retention and performance as well as creating a positive and caring image.
Research shows that healthy people working in a healthy environment are central to business success. That is because a healthy workplace reduces employers’ costs, lowers absenteeism and reduces risk of injury. Moreso, healthy organisations encourage ideas from employees, no matter where they sit in an organisation.
In recent years, the incidence of reported stress among employees has reached an alarming rate. Job stress has been linked causally to heart disease, depression, diabetes, asthma, migraines, and ulcers. Moreso, physically inactive employees cost employers more medical and health insurance bills per year, reduced revenue and lost productivity.
For instance, nearly three-quarters of workers surveyed in major cities of the world in 2011 reported experiencing physical symptoms of stress due to work. According to statistics from the American Psychological Association (APA), a starting two-thirds of Americans say that work is a major source of stress in their lives; up nearly 15 per cent from those who ranked work stress at the top just a year before.
In 2010, slightly more than 1 in 4 Canadian workers described their day-to-day lives as highly stressful, according to the General Social Survey (GSS). This proportion is about the same as reported earlier in the decade by the 2005 GSS and the 2002 Canadian Community Health Survey. The situation is not different for Nigeria where heavy workload, unfriendly work environment, uncertain job responsibilities and job insecurity are stressors across various organisations.
In addition, reports say mental and nervous disorders have replaced musculoskeletal conditions as the top conditions causing long-term disability, as a report says workplace mental disorders and sub-clinical mental health problems in Canada annually result in $33 billion in lost industrial production.
Thus, the persistently high levels of stress among such a large number of the workforce pose great challenges to both employers and the health care system across the globe. Over time, employers record loss in productivity to stress through absenteeism, reduced work output, and increased disability claims.
Most significantly, the affected workforce are said to incur healthcare costs twice as high than for other employees even as stress-related illnesses, ranging from depression to heart disease, are said to cost businesses an estimated $200 to $300 billion every year in lost productivity.
Dr. Olugbenga Abodunrin, a lecturer in the Department of Educational Foundation, Guidance and Counseling, Lagos State University (LASU), who confirmed this figure, stressed that the alarming spike in stress related illness should be of utmost interest to both employers and governments.
According to him, apart from the cost and loss productivity physical and mental stress-related health issues cause employers, the psychological distress it cause workers and their families cannot be quantified.
He listed faltering economy, shrinking incomes and rampant layoffs as undeniable factors responsible for work-related stress among employees.
“Stress is any environmental demand that creates a state of tension or threat and requires a change of adaptation. It is pressure caused by the problems in one’s daily life. This can include something that induces in us tension, anxiety, frustration or sadness. Whatever the root causes, stressed workers tend to be fatigued, prone to mistakes and injuries, and are more likely to be absent.
“On-the-job stressors range from unclear job expectations and time pressures to noisy work situations. A significant factor is lack of accommodation for work/life balance, which can add to the stress load, especially for women who tend to be the primary caretakers of children and elderly loved ones,” he explained.
Speaking further, he explained that lack of participation in decision-making, ineffective management style, unpleasant work environments and longer work hours are other prime stressors.
Building Foundation for Success
Though, workplace experts believe there's no one-size-fits-all approach to designing a psychologically healthy workplace but they agreed that workplaces typically should have programmes and policies that emphasise employee involvement, employee recognition, health and safety, employee growth and development, and work-life balance.
A healthy work environment is one that makes the healthy choice the easy choice and promote work-life balance that will make work a healthy life experience It is an organisation that provides information and resources to assist its workers to make healthy lifestyle choices and to achieve and maintain good health.
That is why workplace experts emphasised that employers who want both their employees and their organisations to flourish must understand what it means to build an organisation that's as human as the human beings who work there.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), proper attention to workers health and safety has extensive benefits as safe workplaces contribute to sustainable development, which is the key to poverty reduction.
Stressing that healthy workers are a key strategy for overcoming poverty, the WHO also pointed out that the vision of workplace health promotion should place particular emphasis on improving the work organisation and working environment, increasing workers' participation in shaping the working environment, and encouraging personal skills and professional development.
Ironically, many organisations mistakenly focus on control - of people, information and deviations from the norm. In doing this, they strap flesh and blood of employees to institute obedience, compliance and conformance regardless of the fact that success requires inventiveness and inspiration. This account for why these experts pointed out that to unleash creativity, organisations should shift the balance from control to freedom through such actions as ditching formal hierarchies or instituting peer-review-based compensation.
They maintained that mutual gathering places, opportunities to comment on work in progress, and shared training experiences can all foster creativity.
They harped on the need for organisations to create a healthy physical, social and psychological work environment as a core business goal that will encourage workers to take responsibility for their own health, safety and wellness and contribute to creating a healthy work environment.
Promoting Healthy Workplaces
The workplace and the health of the workers within it, workplaces experts believe, are inextricably linked. Ideally, they stressed that workplaces should not only protect the safety and wellbeing of employees but also provide them opportunities for better long-term health and enhanced quality of life.
To this end, experts recommend a flexible workplace that supports employees to balance work and life commitments. A flexible workplace is described as an environment in which the workplace culture views this balance as positive and encourages employees to take advantage of options such as; allowing employees to have some capacity to adapt their workday to respond to family issues, supportive supervisors whose management style values staff and is characterised by a desire to help employees achieve better balance between work and the rest of their lives and alternative work arrangement.
More interestingly, in additional to a flexible workplace, experts also recommend the use of humour to facilitate employee performance and promote a healthy workplace.
Human resource expert, Susan Heathfield, stressed the need for organisations to incorporate humour into their workplaces.
She expressed concern that “Up to now, most organisations tended to devalue the idea of laughter at work, seeing it as a distraction from getting the "real" job done. This attitude is also reinforced by the work ethic many of us were raised with: "No pain, no gain," "Work isn't supposed to be fun," and "It's only worthwhile if you have to suffer for it."
In an article on ‘Laughing Your Way to Organisational Health’, she explained “Workplace wellness is a serious issue. With terms like "stress-related-illness" and "burnout" becoming household words, organisations are increasingly looking for ways to keep their workforce happy, healthy and productive. A recent study conducted at Canadian financial institutions found that managers who facilitated the highest level of employee performance used humor the most often.
“The scientific data is also proving that laughter is an integral part of physical wellness. Dr. William Fry of Stanford University found that laughing 200 times burns off the same amount of calories as 10 minutes on a rowing machine. Another study found that after a bout of laughter, blood pressure drops to a lower, healthier level than before the laughter began. Laughter also oxygenates your blood, thereby increasing energy level, relaxes your muscles and works out all your major internal systems like the cardiovascular and respiratory systems”.
According to her, as more and more groups realise the benefits of laughter, they are incorporating it into their wellness programmes. This, she added, would go a long way in promoting a healthier workplace.
“What I have found from working with hundreds of organisations is that they are often full of very funny and resourceful people who just need to be given permission and encouragement to use their sense of humour on the job. Our "inner clown" is now our lifeline in these times of change and uncertainty. Giving him or her free rein not only results in healthier workplaces, but also increases bonding with the rest of the team. Remember, the group that plays together, stays together!,” she added.