Why Aren’t Workplaces Healthier? Or Are They?

I’ve been reading about workplace health programs in Canada and the USA in preparation for a conference in Guadalajara, Mexico on October 26. I am impressed by the amount of activity, thought, and writing that is available on workplace health. There are thoughtful works that explore the myriad factors that influence the healthiness of work environments, the dire consequences of unhealthy work settings, and the financial impact of neglect. Organizations have received awards for promoting the psychological health of their workplaces.

While I’ve been enjoying this material and exploring these ideas, I’m not convinced that workplaces are psychologically healthier than they were a decade ago. The initiatives for improving physical safety at work appear to have a clearer record of success. The (at times annoying) beep of trucks backing up has reduced the number of collisions between trucks and people. I have not found clear evidence of initiatives that reduce anxiety and distress among employees.

So, what is going on?

One possibility is that workplaces are becoming psychologically healthier, but that we still have a long way to go. The enormity of the problem was too great to move briskly to a pleasant state in a few years. But we are on a gradual path towards a better place.

A second scenario is that workplace health initiatives are effective, but that major social forces—the global economic crisis, specifically—have increased the demand side of the equation. In this context, holding steady, without greater distress, is a positive outcome.

A third possibility is that workplace health initiatives miss the point. They may be pleasant while they’re occurring, but they lack enduring impact. The issues at work that affect people profoundly are those of power, job security, and career prospects that are outside the domain of workplace health initiatives.

A fourth possibility is that workplace health has more to do with relationships than with health information or ergonomics. This follows from the idea that improving the level of civility and respect at work has a broad range of impact on wellbeing and productivity at work, as we found in our CREW program. It also is evident in reports that programs to encourage exercise or nutrition work better when designed for groups rather than for individuals. That approach to design is only in its beginning stages.

Whichever scenario, it is clear that we still have a long way to go.

Which explanation makes the most sense to you?

Gradual, hard to see change
Progress set back by poor economy
Programs missing the point
Late recognition of relationships as the key

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