By Bengt B. Arnetz, MD, PhD, MScEpi, MPH (Professor of Family and Preventive Medicine and Chair, Department of Family Medicine, College of Human Medicine, Michigan State University)
The recovery after the “Great Recession” in terms of high-quality jobs and economic growth has been slow. This is usually attributed to economic reasons. However, I believe a major reason for the current challenges to a healthy economy is the nonsustainable working conditions facing a majority of the U.S. workforce.
Numerous studies, including our own, show a high level of fatigue, lack of energy, and disengagement among the nation’s workers. Productivity growth is at a multiyear low. Mental health issues are the primary contributing factor to lack of worker productivity. The number of workers out on social disability is at an all-time high, and the proportion of persons of working age actually engaged in the workforce is down to approximately 6 of 10. This is a waste of human resources, and it means that the workers in the workforce have to work harder, work longer, and contribute more to those not working or not able to work, which results in higher taxes.
We can increase the productivity of workers in the workforce by improving their health and well-being. To do that we need to integrate the sustainable workforce perspective and Total Worker Health™ into the sustainable environmental movement. The public and private sectors need to take a broader approach to sustainability and plan for the long-term mental, social, economic, and ecological health of our globe and of those inhabiting it, now and in the future.
This is a challenging goal, but it can be done. Workplaces that promote sustainable worker health tend to include these features:
- Worker engagement in process improvements
- Effective and goal-driven organizations
- Skills development
- Focus on achievements and not hours worked
- Flexible working conditions and strategic use of information technologies
- Healthy work-life integration
- Nonjudgmental approach to mental health challenges among workers
- Fair and equitable distributions of revenue generated from product and services
- Strategic management to optimize and not maximize stress
My colleagues and I have worked with hundreds of workplaces and tens of thousands of workers. By integrating sustainable workforce concepts into organizational performance strategies, the health and well-being of both workers and organizations improve.
Steps to increase workplace sustainability are extremely cost effective. Let us all work to make sustainable worker health and working conditions a global movement that becomes an integrated part of the overall sustainability movement. The U.S. could take the lead in a transition to sustainable workplaces, while industry develops high quality jobs of the future and strengthens its competitiveness.
We as individuals can also promote such a shift by using our power as consumers and voters. What has your employer done? What improvements can you suggest for U.S. employers? Share your thoughts in the comment section.
Bengt B. Arnetz, MD, PhD, MScEpi, MPH is Professor of Family and Preventive Medicine and Chair, Department of Family Medicine, College of Human Medicine, Michigan State University. He is Board Certified by the American Board of Preventive Medicine in Occupational and Environmental Medicine. His work focuses on addressing adverse effects of stress on workplace safety, quality and worker health, with special attention to first responders and other knowledge workers in the healthcare and information technology sectors. Dr. Arnetz is also committed to enhancing environmental health for underserved and vulnerable populations, not least immigrants and refugees.
Copyright 2015 American Psychological Association
Image source: Flickr user Adam Tinworth on Flickr, under Creative Commons