Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science

Building Healthy Workplaces: Where We Need to Be

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science

Building Healthy Workplaces: Where We Need to Be

Article excerpt

Developing healthy workplaces has received increased attention by the media and researchers, and it has become an important goal for many organizations. However, many organisations are struggling not only to define a "healthy" workplace, but also to assess both the "healthy" and "unhealthy" aspects of their own environment, and to implement initiatives to improve the quality of thc-ir work and workplace.

What Do We know?

In our quest for healthy workplaces, we must be careful to ensure that we incorporate a holistic approach to health. That is, a healthy workplace must encompass the physical, psychological, and social contributing factors. Moreover, we must assess the effectiveness of healthy workplaces using multiple indices of individual health (i.e., psychological, physical, and behavioural), multiple indices of organizational health (e.g., productivity, turnover, customer perceptions), and multiple societal indices.

As the articles in this Special Issue attest, several conclusions regarding the linkages between work and both mental and physical health are justified. First, there is a huge body of literature documenting the direct and indirect costs of work stress (e.g., unsafe work environments). Paradoxically, the pervasiveness of the "stress" effect, as well as the myriad of pathways through which occupational stress can affect economic and social outcomes, makes it almost impossible to derive a precise accounting of these effects. What is clear, however, is that the costs of unsafe, stressful, and unhealthy workplaces are horrific in personal, economic, and social terms.

Second, research conducted primarily since the 1960s has identified the principal characteristics of jobs that affect well-being. Although debate about individual mechanisms (e.g., the interaction of demand and control) continues and new empirical findings continue to emerge, it is possible to articulate the principal features of "good" work as defined in terms of health (see for example Parker, Turner, & Griffin, 2003; Warr, 1987). Failure to design healthy work and workplaces can no longer be blamed on a matter of lack of knowledge about the factors influencing the development of a healthy workplace; it has more to do with a lack of communication of this knowledge to the change agents, a lack of skills in how to produce change, and a lack of will to change.

Third, there is a clear parallel between the literature addressing job design as a means of increasing motivation and organizational effectiveness (e.g., Hackman & Oldham, 1980; Parker & Wall, 1998) and job design as a means of improving individual wellbeing. The job features identified in both cases are virtually identical. Jobs that challenge individuals to use their abilities, that allow individuals to develop and use their skills, that allow individuals decisionmaking authority or autonomy, and that allow the use of a variety of skills result in increased motivation, increased performance (Fried & Ferris, 1987), and enhanced mental health outcomes (Warr, 1987).

Towards a National Strategy

These observations and the supporting literature suggest three principal foundation blocks for a national strategy to address issues of work and mental health, in terms of assessment, primary interventions, and education and training. First, assessing solely disease (either mental or physical) and organizational outcomes (e.g., absenteeism, productivity) is, by definition, focusing solely on the lagging indicators (i.e., outcomes of individual and organizational well-being). In contrast to such a focus, we advocate a focus on the assessment of leading indicators (i.e., predictors or causes) of mental and physical health in the workplace. Second, discussions of job stress are frequently limited to "stress management" interventions and to the role of counseling services through employee assistance programs. In contrast, the organizational research would suggest a dual focus, not only on these types of stress management interventions (i. …

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