In “Workplace Health Protection and Promotion: A New Pathway for a Healthier – and Safer – Workforce,” Hymel et al. defined workplace health protection and promotion as “the strategic and systematic integration of distinct environmental, health and safety policies and programs into a continuum of activities that enhances the overall health and well-being of the workforce and prevents work-related injuries and illnesses” (Hymel et al., p. 695, 2011).
A growing body of evidence supports the underlying concept that focusing on the health and safety of your workforce is good for the employees as well as your bottom line. The finding of a study by Cooklin et al. (2016), performed across six workplaces in Australia, found that integrated approaches demonstrated measurable improvements to individual health, safety and well-being for the employees of the companies examined.
In 2016, a study published by Fabius et al.in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM) tracked the stock market performance of publicly-traded companies with strong health and safety programs. Using simulation and past market performance, companies outperformed the Dow Jones Industrial Average by almost three to one for the 13 years studied. Although correlation is not causation, the results of the S&P 500 study consistently suggest that companies focusing on the health and safety of their workforce can yield greater value for their investors.
Integrating the traditionally separate functions of occupational safety and health, health promotion and health benefits management makes sense for employee and an employer alike, but there is a now a greater sense of urgency about making this integration than ever before.
A unique convergence of social, economic and demographic forces is beginning to act on the working population of the U.S., making this transition toward integrated safety and health even more of an imperative than ever. According to Mercer’s “National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans” (Mercer, 2015), the cost of employer-provided health benefit plans has increased every year since 1997, and the rate of increase is projected to continue during the next few years.
Plus, the U.S. workforce is aging. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 55-year-and-older age group is expected to increase from 21.7 percent of the labor force in 2014 to nearly 25 percent in 2024 (Toosi, 2015).
On top of these disconcerting trends, the generally poor baseline health condition of our adult population is expected to continue into the foreseeable future. The impacts of these societal shifts are increasingly being borne by the employer in terms of both direct healthcare costs and indirect productivity loss costs. Of particular concerns are the rising indirect costs. Loeppke et al. (2007) estimate that on average, for every $1.00 employers spend on healthcare for sick or injure employees, they pay $2.30 in indirect cost, mostly in the form of employee absenteeism, and productivity loss for those who remain at work in their degraded condition.
Stagnant injury rates
At the same time we have experienced the rising costs and incidence of poor health, we have experienced nearly stagnant workplace injury rates. According to BLS data from 2014, the days away from work, job restriction and job transfer rate has dropped only 0.1 per 100 full-time employees and the days away from work rate has remained unchanged since 2011 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). There is increasing evidence that both the frequency and the seriousness of injuries (e.g., duration of recovery, likelihood of full recovery, and chances of medical complications) increases as the baseline health of the injured employee decreases. New approaches are needed to break through this stagnation and continue the progress we were making in the early to mid-2000s. Integrating health and safety offers one such tool.
What leaders have learned
In an effort to advance the concept of integrated health and safety, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University hosted the first of a series of roundtables and summits in the summer of 2014. Forty attendees from organizations in the manufacturing, healthcare, construction and insurance industries as well as government and academic institutions participated.
This was a first of its kind roundtable in which senior executives from business and experts in health, safety, risk management, government and academia came together to take a holistic approach to health and safety. Collectively they came to the conclusion that health of a business relies on employee health and safety.
Seven essentials for sustaining safety
In addition, participants identified seven conditions that must exist in organizations in order to sustain health and safety integration:
- Use a holistic approach: Begin to align safety and health as analogous efforts, not disparate functions.
- Make a commitment: Position integrated health and safety(IH&S) as an organizational value.
- Present the business case for IH&S: Reduce ambiguity and provide empirical evidence to justify investment in comprehensive workplace health and safety.
- Create an overarching management structure for IH&S: Create lines of authority and reporting to encourage effective communication among all functions in the organization.
- Education for middle managers and first-line supervisors on IH&S: Train your staff in the language and methods of integrated health and safety and be prepared to reach outside the organization to assist academic programs in incorporating health and safety concepts into business courses.
- Support a culture of continuous learning: Expand your focus beyond lagging indicators, such as incident rates, to those leading indicators including behaviors and employee health conditions that create risk.
- Engage everyone in the organization: The involvement of the entire organization cannot be understated or underestimated in the impact it has on performance improvement.
How to get started
One deliverable resulting from the summit was a five-point roadmap to help lay out a path for individual organizations to follow once the strong and sustained senior-level buy in is established:
1) Develop a rationale for why strategic integration is important and needed. Tie integrated health and safety into larger business plans and strategy.
2) Evaluate the current health and safety status of your organization. Establish a baseline against which you can gauge your improvements.
3) Develop and implement programs based on your integrated strategy and vision. Look to both what you have in place that can be expanded upon as well as external resources including vendors, contractors, business associations, even government and non-profit entities for assistance.
4) Create a system for collecting data and monitor your performance throughout implementation.
5) Measure your progress against your baseline, and take corrective action as needed.
What’s the takeaway?
An integrative approach to the health and safety of your workforce is good for the employees and good for your bottom line. A convergence of social, economic and demographic forces in the U.S., including the skyrocketing cost of employer-provided health benefit plans, an aging workforce, and demonstrable decline in baseline health among the U.S. population is making this transition toward an integrated safety and health even more imperative now. Creating the right environment for advancing health and safety integration and starting on the path to integration following the five-point roadmap is a great way for your organization to increase the health and well-being of the workforce, prevent work-related injuries and illnesses, and improve your bottom line.
• Bureau of Labor Statistics (2015). Employer-Reported Workplace Injuries and Illnesses – 2014. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/osh_10292015.pdf. Accessed July 31, 2016.
• Cooklin, A., Joss, N., Husser, E., & Oldenburg, B. (2016). “Integrated approaches to occupational health and safety: a systematic review.” American Journal of Health Promotion. In-Press.
• Fabius R, Loepke RR, Hohn T, et al (2016). “Tracking the market performance of companies that integrate a culture of health and safety.” Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (58), 3-8.
• Hymel P, et al. “Workplace Health Protection and Promotion: A New Pathway for a Healthier – and Safer – Workforce.” Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (53), 695-702.
• Loeppke, R., Taitel, M., Richling, D., Parry, T., Kessler, R. C., Hymel, P., & Konicki, D. (2007). “Health and productivity as a business strategy.”. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 49(7), 712-721.
• Mercer (2015). “With the excise tax in their sights, employers hold health benefits cost growth to 3.8% in 2015.” Retrieved from http://www.mercer.com/newsroom/national-survey-of-employer-sponsored-health-plans-2015.html. Accessed July 31, 2016
• Toosi, M. (2015). “Labor force projections to 2024: the labor force is growing, but slowly.” Monthly Labor Review, December, 2015.