I recently wrote about how social science supports local governments to improve public health, through research and community consultation. Social scientists work to address policy gaps, we use science theories and methods to better target community services, and we ensure that health programs are socially inclusive. Here, I want to address how this public health model is relevant to workplace health. I’ll start by briefly showing why and how public health is important.
Public health includes issues such as the spread, causes and social context of infection (epidemiology), nutrition, family health, mental health, sustainable planning, community development and workplace safety.
Social scientists provide specialist advice on how culture, socio-economics and institutional issues affect public health. Social scientists also support education programs, we manage stakeholder relationships, and we improve policies and services using scientific methods. This includes demographic surveys and evaluations of health programs, amongst other things. Social science is used in three key health areas:
- Local health planning: ensuring policies and programs meet legislative requirements and current health and medical knowledge
- Demographic assessments: measuring and addressing local needs of local councils, by analysing population trends and modelling changes over time
- Social inclusion: evaluating and proactively supporting health access and participation of all local citizens, with a special focus on minorities, vulnerable and marginalised groups.
One of the biggest challenges health workers face is negotiating outcomes that will have lasting impact. Part of the problem is that public health advice is delivered separately to existing workplace practices on Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S).
All employers and organisations are required by law to follow relevant OH&S and health legislation. Workplaces are also required to provide some level of training for employees on their rights and responsibilities under the legislation. There should ideally be a health representative on staff as well as access to medical assistance and other health services. The problem is that there is a gap on what we tell employees about health and what we practice within the workplace.
Workplace health, as I noted, falls under public health. A good public health model ensures that all citizens are aware about how social dynamics can affect their wellbeing. Work/life balance is a term that many workplaces embrace in principle, but what does it actually mean and how does it contribute to public health?
Work/ Life Balance
Australian Sociologist Barbara Pocock has extensively researched how workplaces can improve work/life balance. Pocock places emphasis on “Supportive workplace cultures, practices and leadership” as the means to improve work relationships. This means being flexible with work hours and the structure of work, and taking into consideration employee’s personal and professional needs. This includes the type of work undertaken by employees, and being innovative about the ways that employees can deliver work outputs.
Yet despite the growing interest in work/life balance, research shows that employees are largely feeling overworked, unhappy and uneasy about having to work beyond their desired age of retirement.
With ageing populations in Australia and other developed nations, there is an increased burden of care on families. I’ve previously noted that new technology can help to accommodate the needs of employees, including their caring responsibilities for dependants who are sick, elderly or disabled.
Family life and work are not separate, but corporate policies act as if they are in practice, by not adequately taking responsibility for how employee health fits in with their family and community relationships.
Is Your Workplace Healthy?
Employers can contribute to both corporate and public health by making work/ life balance a responsibility of their workplace policies, rather than leaving individuals to manage this balance against competing demands of their personal lives and their job. Bringing in a public health perspective into the workplace helps to work/life balance into perspective. For example:
- Planning: Are workplace policies measuring up to legislation and best-practice evidence? Does your workplace regularly and adequately measure the long-term health requirements of staff?
- Assessment: Do workplace health programs adequately meet the needs of your specific workplace? Do employees feel workplace policies are flexible enough to support work/life balance or are they struggling to manage health and caring responsibilities?
- Social Inclusion: Are there special-needs group within your workforce that need additional health support? Are workplace health services culturally relevant? Does your workplace provide ongoing training on social issues affecting health?
A public health perspective on work/life balance places the onus not simply on individuals to manage their health alone. Instead, it encourages managers and corporate leaders to become aware about how social and community dynamics influence health, and how this in turn affects workplace relationships and productivity. A public health model provides a “road map” for being proactive about health, and ensuring your workplace is contributing to individual and community wellbeing.
Is your workplace contributing to good public health?
A shorter version of this post appeared on LinkedIn.