Why improving employees' wellness could boost workplace safety

Why improving employee wellness could boost your workplace safety
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Employee safety cannot be optimised through operational measures alone – social and emotional factors must also be considered. By Chris Rofe, SVP, Lockton Benefits

Most companies intuitively appreciate how high safety levels improve overall employee wellness. It is less often considered, however, how employee wellness can underpin safety and reduce the number of workplace injuries.

Worker safety has improved in recent years, thanks to the increased use of risk assessments, safety training, and improved equipment and mechanical safety engineering, among other factors.

Some employers might be trying to improve employee safety with one arm tied behind their back.

There is still much for companies to do, however. There were 137 fatalities arising from accidents at work in the UK between 2016 and 2017, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). And an estimated 622,000 workers were injured at work between 2015 and 2016.

More generally, fines for health and safety offences in the UK more than doubled (up to £73m) between 1 February 2016 and 31 January 2017, following the introduction of tougher sentencing guidelines for health and safety and corporate manslaughter offences. Worryingly, the number of businesses prosecuted by the HSE rose by 6% during 2015/2016.

Despite companies’ focus on improving workplace safety, when doing so, they can sometimes overlook workers’ underlying behaviours and wellness. As a result, some employers might be trying to improve employee safety with one arm tied behind their back.

Mind and body

If a company’s safety measures are not linked to its employee wellness programme, it is unlikely to optimise its safety levels regardless of how much money it spends.

Obesity, sleep deprivation, smoking and substance abuse are all associated with mental errors and workplace safety risks.

Evidence shows that good physical and mental health, with an absence of chronic conditions, is associated with low occupational injury rates. Conversely, obesity, sleep deprivation, smoking and substance abuse have all been shown to be associated with mental errors at work, rates of musculoskeletal disease and disability and workplace safety risks.

We saw this, tragically, with the Croydon tram derailment in 2016, in which seven people died and more than 50 were injured. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch investigation found that the probable explanation for the driver’s loss of awareness was that he momentarily fell asleep due to fatigue.

Holistic approach

To optimise workplace safety, companies should recognise that safety (‘health protection’) and employee health and wellness (‘health promotion’) are two sides of the same coin. Each complements and reinforces the other.

Companies should strive for a ‘culture of health’, with the various factors that affect workers – including emotional, social, mental, physical and financial health – tied together.

Companies should recognise that safety and employee wellness are two sides of the same coin.

Unfortunately, in practice, ‘health protection’ and ‘health promotion’ are often developed in different organisational divisions, with minimal interaction.

This silo-ed approach is often created/affirmed by three factors:

1. A company’s services are purchased by different stakeholders (HR, Facilities, Risk Management, and so on) in different circumstances, to meet different practical and commercial needs.

2. Companies often use a host of different service providers, whose communication with each other is often limited, or non-existent.

3. Even when the same service provider is used, their various different departments often don’t communicate with each other as well as might be expected.

As a result of this silo-ed approach, instructive data sources are often missed, and the lessons and insight that might be drawn from aggregated data never become apparent.

This contributes to another challenge: companies’ ability to measure the full benefits of improved, integrated workplace health and safety. This often stems from an imbalance between their access to, and use of, ‘lag indicators’ and ‘lead indicators’.

Ask yourself, how imbedded is your health and safety programme in the wider organisation?

Lag indicators are output measurements – for example, the number of accidents on a building site; or health insurance claims, sickness rates and attendance.

Lead indicators, on the other hand, are predictive measurements – for example, the proportion of people wearing hard hats on a building site; or percentage of employees participating in health promotion campaigns.

While companies often have access to lag indicators, lead indicators are vital to influencing future behaviour. For example, if a company wanted to decrease accidents in a warehouse, it could make safety training mandatory for all employees or require them to always wear hard-hats. Measuring these activities should provide good predictors of future outcomes. 

Although lead indicators do not guarantee success, when they are monitored along with subsequent lag indicators, and modified based on experience, a cycle of continuous improvement can be established.

Making it happen

Ask yourself, how imbedded is your health and safety programme in the wider organisation? For the programme to show measurable benefits, it needs to be built into the very DNA of your company – aligned with your broader culture and business goals.

Essential stages in imbedding an integrated programme into your company include:

1. Planning – develop a rationale for why strategic integration is important and needed.

2. Assessment – evaluate the current health and safety status of the organisation.

3. Implementation – develop and implement a new, integrated strategy and vision.

4. Monitoring – create a system for collecting data and for monitoring and evaluating programs during implementation.

5. Review – gauge progress periodically and take corrective action as needed.

While these five steps are very important, as the saying goes – culture really does eat strategy for breakfast. It is vital, therefore, that companies ensure that intelligence and lessons learnt are shared across divisions, and that employee safety is considered in broad, holistic terms.

 

For more information, please contact Chris Rofe on:

Chris.Rofe@uk.lockton.com

+44 (0)20 7933 2876