Enhancing Employee Health at Work

Tracey Lloyd of Vireo Health Promotions shares some clever ways to improve workplace health, as well as some links to valuable resources. Even though some of the resources are international, they are still full of useable information that you can apply to your own work environment…

Designing Healthy Working EnvironmentsAccording to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average hours worked by full time employees in Australia is 42 hours per week. which provides a significant amount of time for the worksite environment and surrounds to impact on employee’s physical and mental health. 

CHEW (Checklist of Health Environments at Worksites) is a questionnaire devised by Sallis and available for download from Dr Sallis’ website.  It assesses the physical environment of the worksite and its surrounds together with the social and policy factors of the organisation.  It allows investigators to observe and detail factors that encourage or discourage physical activity and healthy eating in the workplace. Factors such as whether there is an onsite fitness centre, organized physical activity programs or sports teams, the number of bulletin boards with health related information around the worksite and the type of food served in any onsite cafeteria are examples of the types of data that CHEW gathers in relation to the worksite environment. 

CHEW can be used to undertake an initial audit of the worksite environment prior to developing a workplace health promotion program and has also been found to have promise as a tool to measure the effectiveness of workplace health promotion programs (Oldenburg, Sallis, Harris and Owen, 2002). 

Following an initial audit based on the CHEW or similar questionnaires and as part of a widespread workplace health promotion program, indirect health promotion activities can be undertaken throughout the entirety of the working week through measures such as poster and brochure displays, access to health information via company intranets and newsletters and modifying the work environment to improve health outcomes (such as investing in quieter equipment or encouraging employees to use the stairs to visit colleagues on other floors rather than sending emails or picking up the phone). Development of policies and procedures to address sun and noise exposure may also be included in the workplace health promotion program. Such measures may encourage employees to change behaviours or to seek further information or assistance about changing behaviours. Behaviour change decisions are dependent upon where the employee currently sits on the Stages of Change spectrum. 

Participation by employees in workplace health promotion programs may have a positive impact on absenteeism and may also result in decreased healthcare costs for employers. The potential benefits to individuals in participating in workplace health promotion programs are almost endless and include improved fitness, weight loss, improved mood and ability to deal with stress, improved nutrition and a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and some cancers.

Organisations that provide free or low cost health information brochures, posters and talks:

Heart Foundation

Cancer Council

Beyond Blue

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland

Assistance with workplace health promotion programs can be obtained from:

WA Healthy Business

Bringing Health to Work – Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety

About the Author

Joanne Wallace is our resident "Safety Guru". Joanne has provided advice on safety management for the past 10 years and written hundreds of articles on safety issues and tips. Joanne has experience in many industries ranging from manufacturing, food processing, timber milling, retail, office and wholesaling providing her with knowledge and experience managing risk and injuries in these industries.

Comments (1)

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  1. Les Henley says:

    Despite some apprehension about being labelled a ‘cynic’, I wonder who ‘workplace health’ is aimed at.

    BY way of illustration —-
    I currently work as an OHS practitioner for a multi-national organisation. I’m employed in a division that provides cleaning services to a wide variety of worksites, commercial and industrial as well as government schools, offices and other facilities.
    I’m personally based in a 5 story building on the 5th floor. The building is situated on a hill and there is limited onsite parking (allocated) so I have to park off-site, climb the hill to the building then ascend to the top floor of the building (usually via a lift but it’s been out of service for over 2 weeks now). And I’m not fit.
    Within this building, I and the people around me are primarily doing our work on computers and have KPIs that focus and drive our efforts.
    I deal with so much information on a day-to-day basis that I rarely if ever review noticeboards and even if I see a new poster I rarely register its contents.

    I am often required to leave this building and attend various worksites where employees are working.
    Even if we had the opportunity to place these types of posters on client sites, employees at the coal face in my division are employed to clean – not stand and read posters and information associated with health not specifically relevant to their duties.

    By way of discussion ——
    I quickly reviewed the CHEW audit form, recommended in the article, and was astounded at the scope of information listed for audit. The document is 20 pages long!!!!

    Even if 10% of what is listed were present in my workplace, and I was to read it, I would lose a significant portion of a day. Hence even if the information was posted I doubt I would take, much less have, the time to review it all. And I don’t think I’d be the only person who would not.

    Then we can add the problem that when posters are not regularly replaced, after a time people generally tend not to see them – reducing their impact.

    However, assuming we start the process, if we were to total up the time it would cost for employees just to read such posters, then add the effort required to maintain, update, and change displays to keep them fresh, I find it hard to imagine any business carrying sufficient ‘fat’ in their budgets to carry such a cost for any length of time (except maybe for the big banks).

    Add to this the costs associated with providing space for exercise, and providing and maintaining gym equipment, and the potential for injuries related to these activities, I find it difficult to see the justification for such programs.

    As an OHS practitioner, I am fully aware of the scope and scale of costs to business of lost productivity due to ill health and weight related conditions and so I understand the ‘push’ to manage ‘workplace health’. But I cannot imagine many businesses – running lean as they do today and seeking to maximise profit whilst minimising costs – putting much resource into processes that are questionable in terms of return on investment.

    In a society where quality of life is significantly impacted by the pressures of increasing work hours, and the stress from high demands, and increasing productvity targets, all of which have impacts on physical, meantal and emotional energy levels, who, reallistically, has the energy to focus even on buying healthy food much less the effort to plan menus and prepare food and establish a healthy exercise regime.

    Maybe a more appropriate approach to ‘workplace health’ would be to encourage businesses to return to an expectation that work hours and job/productivity demands were such that ‘healthy lifestyle’ was incorporated into everyday life – such as before Australia started down the road to becoming the ‘most obese country’ in the world.

    If we were to anlayse the root causes of ‘unhealthy workplaces’ I am fairly sure we would eventually come to the recognition that ‘capitalism’ – the focus on amassing wealth – and ‘materialism’ – the focus on owning more stuff – would both be significant contributors.

    The average employee is really no different to the business that employs them in terms of motivation – we work to earn a buck to improve our lifestyle. But lifestyle, for many, is assessed on how much money we have and how much stuff we own.

    Based on these assumptions, I don’t believe we’ll have any real impact on ‘workplace health’ until we regain a balance in our view of what’s important in life – good health along with quality of life being two key components.

    So – is ‘workplace health’ a viable program for most businesses?
    I think not.

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