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February 06, 2020
Surgeon General touts worker well-being

In a medical journal editorial, the U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams, encouraged employers to foster worker well-being. Adams highlighted the Total Worker Health (TWH) approach developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

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The article recently appeared in Public Health Reports. The Surgeon General oversees the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which includes NIOSH.
NIOSH’s TWH approach integrates protection from work-related safety and health hazards, with efforts to promote worker wellness.

Adams suggested that workplace conditions can affect employees at the physical, mental, or emotional level. Conditions that affect worker well-being that are within employers’ control include job demands and pressures, the degree of workers’ autonomy and flexibility, quality of interactions with supervisors and coworkers, frequency of shift work, and length of the workday, according to Adams.

He pointed to several emerging work factors that may affect worker well-being, including:

  • Nonstandard employment or remote work arrangements that afford workers greater flexibility and foster higher productivity;
  • An emerging gig economy in which short-term contracts or freelance work is more prevalent than part-time or salaried employment, resulting in workers’ being more likely to have job insecurity, increased stress, and negative health outcomes; and
  • Growing evidence for the effectiveness of workplace wellness and health-promotion programs.

Adams recommended that employers provide adequate paid leave; support for workers returning to work after an injury; good management of disabilities; opportunities for higher wages; greater autonomy, flexibility, and control over job tasks; improvements to the organization of work and the way jobs are structured; improvements to the physical work environment; and access to healthcare coverage. He noted that large employers have been more likely than small employers to adopt such strategies but suggested all sizes and types of businesses should adopt at least some of them.

NIOSH developed the TWH approach as an expansion of the traditional view of occupational safety and health as solely concerned with workplace injury and illness prevention. The institute funds six Centers of Excellence and supports an affiliate network to conduct research and identify promising practices related to a TWH approach.

One of NIOSH’s TWH Centers of Excellence, the Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace, developed the Health Improvement Through Training & Employee Control (HITEC) program in cooperation with the Connecticut Department of Corrections. The HITEC program provides peer health mentor­ing to new correctional officers to support healthier behavior and improved well-being. The HITEC includes health-related interventions designed by participating workers.

Adams pointed out that the HITEC’s health-improvement initiatives designed by employees had higher participation rates and better health outcomes than initiatives designed by employers. Interventions in the HITEC program saw greater improvements in participants’ fat-free muscle mass, diastolic hypertension, and workplace burnout than the conventional instruction for new correctional officers.

“Employers and companies need to ensure that workplace programs that address well-being are implemented more broadly, meet employee needs, and produce tangible health and business outcomes,” Adams wrote in his article.

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