Among other things, the pandemic has certainly changed the way people live and work. It has uprooted current assumptions about most everything in life, including health and safety. But it has also shone a new light to EHS, boosting its importance in a company’s agenda. Organizations with an effective EHS system has proven to be relatively more resilient in its ability to withstand the pandemic and bounce back.
The fulfillment of health and safety requirements in workplaces has always been a critical issue even in pre pandemic time. Research has shown that investments in employees' health, safety and wellbeing will lead to lower turnover, higher productivity and better overall performance for an organization. What the pandemic has done, however, is exposed gaps and deficiencies in a company’s EHS systems. As one Harvard School of Public Health article rightly pointed out, the pandemic has symbolically removed the mask covering organizational flaws regarding health and safety practices. As we gradually come out of this pandemic, a renewed focus on Total Worker Health is needed to ensure a strong, healthy and productive workforce that is able to make a positive contribution in life, inside and outside of the workplace.
Total Worker Health® (TWH) was first introduced in 2011 by NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) in the USA and is defined as policies, programs, and practices that integrate protection from work-related safety and health hazards with promotion of injury and illness-prevention efforts to advance worker wellbeing.
TWH embodies a two-prong approach to health and safety, where the focus is not only limited to protecting employees and preventing accidents, but also changing the work environment itself with the end goal being improvement of the workforce’s wellbeing. In short, it is an integration of occupational safety and health promotion to improve wellbeing. Traditional EHS measures focuses largely on ensuring that work is safe and that workers are protected from the harms that may arise from that work. TWH takes this a few steps further by recognizing there are psychosocial factors related to work and its environment that impact the wellbeing of workers, their families, and their communities.
Over time, this concept has evolved to encompass a holistic, organization wide approach to worker wellbeing, with an understanding that what someone is exposed to at work will have a direct impact to his/her overall health and wellbeing as a person. And vice versa, someone’s underlying health condition will have a direct impact on their ability to perform their jobs safely.
Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention, April 2021
In order to successfully implement the TWH approach, a few things have to come into play:
1. Leadership and organizational commitment in the form of top-level management buy in and support. A successful implementation of TWH principles will require different parts of the organization to work together to create a positive work environment for everyone and this can only be done with the support of a committed leadership team. Moreover, given the heightened stress level that has been triggered by the pandemic, supporting the workforce through organizational commitment, action, and communication is absolutely critical.
2. Participatory approaches to understand the daily challenges faced by the workforce and identify potential solutions to those issues. Getting employee involvement and feedback in decision making, encouraging employees to voice concerns about working conditions without fear of retaliation, initiating discussions to identify hazards or other concerns are all things that can be done to foster employee engagement in this process.
3. Comprehensive and collaborative efforts between departments to increase system efficiencies. It needs to be understood that advancing employees wellbeing is not the sole responsibility of specific departments like HR or Operations. The company needs to drive this point home by having a comprehensive approach and setting up health, safety and wellbeing programs and policies that span across divisions and departments.
4. Lastly, we must not overlook the role of data to evaluate progress and guide actions. Companies need to set up quantifiable metrics to track and measure the success of the various programs and policies that they are implementing. Regular progress evaluation will facilitate inter departmental communication, guide priority setting, support decision making and ensure continuous improvement efforts to achieve the goals.
In summary, TWH measures and assesses what a worker experiences in the workplace, collects data to understand what needs to be changed, provides approaches on how to positively modify the work environment, and encourages collaboration across traditional organizational boundaries to ensure a safe and healthy workplace. With the increased focus on mental health and wellbeing in recent times, companies will benefit from shifting their focus to incorporate TWH in their corporate strategy. A renewed focus on TWH can also help with the issue of great resignation that many organizations are grappling with right now.