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Combating EHS Risk with a ‘Total Health’ Mindset

Combating EHS Risk with a ‘Total Health’ Mindset

Dec. 18, 2023
It's time for us to see how workforce wellness equates to positive business outcomes.

There’s more to EHS leadership than simply checking compliance boxes and reducing injuries. Yet, the total health of workers -- including mental health and job satisfaction – continues to fly under business leaders’ radars.

There are major consequences to deprioritizing these aspects of total health – especially regarding productivity, physical safety, and turnover. As a result, leading businesses are taking a “total health” approach to EHS in 2024 to protect employee wellness and reap wider benefits to the entire organization.

Worker Health and Safety – More than Preventing Accidents

The physical dangers of the workplace, and their costs and wider impact on productivity, are well known. In 2021, there were nearly 5,200 workplace fatalities, and roughly 2.6 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses within the private sector. The latter resulted in 10 median days away from work and $167 billion in lost productivity in 2021.

"Presenteeism" or going to work sick, injured, in pain, or otherwise hindered – reduces worker productivity by a third and costs companies dearly. Years ago, it was estimated that presenteeism cost companies $150 billion – or $244 billion when adjusted for inflation. By now, it’s presumed those numbers have only gotten worse.

The risks and impacts from poor or untreated worker mental health are appreciable, too. Gallup reports the 19% of workers who rated their mental health as fair or poor had four times as many unplanned absences due to their mental health compared to healthier colleagues. These absences cost an annualized $47.6 billion in lost productivity.

There are other impacts to worker wellness. For example, caregiving has a measurable impact on productivity and the economy. A 2021 study from the Rosalyn Carter Institute for Caregivers found that of all caregiving employees, 73% had to leave work early or unexpectedly, 70% had to suddenly take a day off, and 68% declined to take on more responsibility at work.  

Finally, enduring workplace hazards, including mental health challenges and worker burnout, can lead to high staff turnover – especially in blue-collar or hourly jobs. Failing to prioritize mental health, job satisfaction, and worker safety will only worsen the problem for business leaders. It will make it harder to retain and recruit staff and will impact overall productivity and their bottom line.

It’s neither novel nor unprecedented for businesses to wade into the murky waters of their workers’ personal lives and provide preventative healthcare benefits and solutions. After all, many employers have long offered health insurance plans, time off for illness, vacation, and bereavement. But the data suggests that for far too many employees, their burdens are keeping them home, or worse, going to work with them. There are several ways businesses can better prioritize total health to protect employees and the organization.

Protecting Total Employee Health – Holistically

EHS leaders are increasingly becoming the vanguard of employee wellness – not just health and safety. Managers cannot overlook this growing responsibility or delegate it, as it directly impacts operations and even the business’s bottom line.

By setting the right strategies, improving processes, and giving workers the technology and resources needed to be the best versions of themselves, both the employee experience and success of the business will be safer and stronger.

Define Your Strategy for Total Health

Whether you’re just establishing an EHS program or revamping one, integrating total health priorities should be communicated. Without understanding the workforce and the unique challenges they face – both professionally and personally – it’s impossible to create a strategy that will produce benefits to employees and the organization.

Give your teams agency in the process of transformation. Make them part of it and ask that they participate in defining what total health looks like to them. You might find advocates for healthy living and holistic healing among your teams who are eager to help – or perhaps you’ll uncover hidden pain points of the job that have contributed to turnover. Almost always, leaders will gain a better understanding of what drives their workers, what keeps them up at night, and what they need to do a better job – which will help management drive the right improvements instead of changes that won’t make an impact.

Codify your strategies as core values and communicate to your workforce that this is how you’re going to protect their physical and mental health -- and ask that they hold you accountable.

Revamp Processes to Ensure Optimal Total Health

A fatal flaw of leadership is to implement strategies without establishing processes to ensure that strategy sets culture. Workers need clear, streamlined workflows to provide feedback or input on programs or initiatives, report accidents, incidents, or unsafe working conditions, and especially, threats or acts of violence. Workers also need to feel safe at work, and it’s that safety that improves or preserves their mental health.

We hear time and time again, after mass-casualty incidents, that warning signs were seen and reported, but they didn’t reach the proper authorities. We’re effective at communicating from the top down; but we must ensure ways for our staff to communicate from the ground up. By improving EHS workflows for real-time reporting and combining on-the-ground employee engagement with business solutions, EHS leaders will enable faster and more effective incident reporting that can prevent or disrupt hazardous situations.

What’s more: employees need to be able to provide feedback to their managers – to convey concerns or to share health-related challenges (e.g., mental health, care-giver stress). Leaders need to ensure these lines of communication are open and encourage their use if needed.

Leverage Technology to Protect Your People

Leaders are now able to leverage AI, analytics, and compliance-tracking solutions to create safer work environments, especially in the most dangerous industries. These can facilitate workforce health surveys, gather ground-level worker sentiment, and capture ideas from the workforce to improve working conditions and morale. They can also facilitate faster, more efficient incident reporting, which can save lives.

At the line-of-business level, mobile applications provide on-the-go access to wellness programs, such as fitness and mental health apps. Also, wearable devices enable front-line workers to closely monitor their own health and wellbeing and track it over time. My pulse is high – I’m stressed. It’s been an hour since I’ve gotten up - I need to get my steps in. I haven’t been sleeping well all week - I need to focus on sleep hygiene for longer, more restful sleep.

Technology can also make remote work more manageable for many employees, particularly those that have been remote long-term, who are prone to loneliness (itself an epidemic), and whose mental health has been suffering. Mobile connectivity and collaboration tools can facilitate a greater sense of teamwork and morale, and help at-risk employees mitigate some of the challenges of remote work.

Offer Resources to Boost Retention

Companies can also focus on prevention and early intervention to improve overall employee health. They can create wellness programs that provide resources, opportunities, and incentives for employees to own their health, including discounted gym memberships, fitness benefits, and access to guided meditation classes and apps.

Companies can also provide employees with access to private, virtual mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, and caregiver resources (for parents and children of aging parents). Although companies aren’t in the business of healthcare, they can provide access to the kinds of care that can help employees optimize or reclaim their health – for themselves, their families, and their colleagues.

Towards a Safer, Healthier Workforce

To mitigate broader employee health and safety risks, including mental health and the stresses of modern life, business leaders should take a holistic view of EHS and its role in ensuring business success. The importance of mental health and protecting it at work has flown under the radar for far too many years; but we’re starting to see the impact on workplace safety, worker productivity, and business resilience. Companies need strong leadership on EHS to ensure alignment on health and safety initiatives, and modern solutions to facilitate data/incident reporting and improve access to health resources.

Anything less will fail the workforce, which has been struggling in silence for too long. It’s time for us to do better and see how workforce wellness equates to positive business outcomes in this new year.

R. Mukund is  Founder & CEO of Benchmark Gensuite.

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