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Considering the Whole Worker

Diana Stegall, CSP, CFPS, ARM, SMS, CPCU, 2019-20 ASSP President
Mar 01, 2020
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Over the last few years, we have been talking quite a bit about total worker health (TWH) and the vital need to ensure that organizations consider human capital in sustainability conversations and initiatives. It is easy to equate TWH with wellness, but we need to extend our perceptions beyond the traditional focus on physical health to consider the worker as a whole.

To help our organizations truly excel, we need to help our workers be the best possible version of themselves. This includes creating an environment in which they feel secure enough to address difficult topics such as mental health, addiction and suicide. According to CDC, suicide has been the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. since 2008. In 2016, it became the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34 and the fourth leading cause for those ages 35 to 54. Substance abuse is surpassed only by depression in its correlation to suicide, and opioids increase the likelihood of a suicide attempt by 75%.

You may be wondering what this has to do with workplace safety and health. As safety professionals, we share the common goal of protecting workers from harm, both physical and mental. Many adults spend most of each day at work, and they bring with them many of the stresses of their lives. Substance abuse, workplace bullying and workplace violence can also cause workers to feel overwhelmed and hopeless.

In 2018, employers reported 304 workplace suicides to BLS, the highest number since the agency began tracking these data 26 years ago. The suicide rate among those of working age increased 34% from 2000 to 2016. CDC data indicate that among men, occupational suicide rates are highest in the construction and extraction sector. For women, the highest rates occur in arts, entertainment, sports and media.

These statistics are troubling. They demand our attention and action. Workplaces that lack psychological support often experience increased absenteeism, higher turnover and lower productivity, and are at a greater risk of incidents and injuries. We cannot expect to keep workers safe and secure if we do not view them from a holistic perspective.

Organizations with a learning culture create an environment in which psychosocial risk (even if that term is not used) is recognized, discussed and addressed. Leadership provides direction and sets clear expectations. Employees are encouraged to be open about how they are feeling and when they are not 100%, and they have access to resources to help them deal with stress and other family or personal issues. Everyone is treated with civility and respect.

In addition, in such environments, there is a good fit between employees and their jobs, and growth and development are supported and viewed as essential investments in people. Employees are recognized and rewarded, and the organization actively engages them in efforts to make the workplace safer. And, when an incident occurs, the employee is not blamed. Instead, the organization assesses the context in which the work was performed and focuses on identifying ways to improve.

These topics are quite personal to me. About 3 years ago, a long-term friend and mentor died by suicide. More recently, I lost a friend due to addiction. His struggles started because of an injury and grew as he tried to manage the resulting pain.

As we expand our view and apply a TWH lens to our work as safety professionals, we will not have all the answers. But we can ensure that the discussions are taking place and that our cross-functional teams are addressing not just the physical health of our workers, but also their mental health. Our employees deserve nothing less.

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