Opinion

Workers' health, a priority for business leaders | Gustafson

At this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, issues of health and wellness are at the center of numerous events and gatherings.

Those topics have been addressed here before – an initiative called Workplace Wellness Alliance was started in 2009 – but interest has increased substantially since then and has now gotten the attention of leaders and representatives of businesses and countries from around the world.

"In today's environment of economic uncertainty, individuals, institutions and countries are striving for greater adaptability and resilience against setbacks while continuing towards improving competitiveness in an ever-changing world," wrote Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the Forum in the opening statement of this year's program. "In this context, organizations, in their role as employers, have an even greater responsibility to nurture employee resilience; there is strong evidence that a healthy workforce is vital to a country's competitiveness, productivity and well-being."

Dismal statistics about growing stress and burnout at work underline the importance of paying greater attention to work-related health problems. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 350 million people suffer from mostly stress-related depression worldwide. It is one of the leading causes of disability and a contributing factor in multiple so-called non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer.

While a certain amount of stress in the workplace is considered unavoidable and can even be an integral part of productivity, unhealthy stress levels are reached when workers face demands and pressures that exceed their abilities or are beyond their control or leave them feel unsupported. By contrast, the WHO states, "a healthy working environment is one in which there is not only an absence of harmful conditions but an abundance of health-promoting ones." This includes, but is not limited to, the "availability of health-promoting organizational support practices and structures."

As self-evident as some of these descriptions may seem, employers have not always been quick to recognize their role in addressing the health concerns of their workforce. Traditionally, even employer-sponsored healthcare systems like in the United States have not systematically engaged in preventive measures to reduce illnesses and injuries in the workplace. But with rising insurance premiums and other healthcare-related costs, businesses feel the need to invest more in the welfare of their workers, not only because it is the right thing to do but also because it is in their own interest.

According to Buck Consultants, a global consulting firm specializing in human resources, work-related stress is now considered a top health risk and drives workplace wellness programs in many parts of the world. In addition to skyrocketing direct healthcare expenses, absenteeism (sick leave) and presenteeism (workers show up for work but are not fully productive) cost companies billions of dollars in annual losses, much of which could be prevented.

The issue should not only concern the business world. The last thing any society can afford is to have a large part of its working population burned out and forced into early retirement because of disability, said Ursula von der Leyen, Germany's former labor minister who became lately the country's first female defense secretary. "These cases are no longer just the exception. It's a trend that we have to do something about," she said in an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP), the French news agency.

Nearly one out of every 10 sick days is due to psychological illness, yet labor protection still covers almost exclusively physical health problems, even in Germany where labor laws are already relatively strict compared to other countries, including the U.S.

Under von der Leyen's leadership, the German government has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the risk of burnout among workers and vowed to explore possible solutions.

But ultimately it will be up to business leaders to create more health-conducive work environments where workers can thrive instead of being used up for the sake of increased but short-lived productivity.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter, on Facebook,Google+ and on Pinterest.

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