The National Occupational Health and Safety Strategy 2002-2012 “set ambitious targets and resulted in significant reductions in work related traumatic fatalities and injuries” Safe Work Australia reported. Safe Work Australia also stated that although significant improvements to “health and safety were made during the National OHS Strategy, current data show that on average 250 workers in Australia die from an injury sustained at work each year. It is estimated that over 2000 workers die from a work-related illness each year”.

Typically there has been a high impetus for safe workplaces focusing on accidents and injuries in the workplace. Accidents and injuries stand out. A broken arm, a fall, being hit by an object: – are all acute incidents that people can see the effects of immediately. It can also be easier to measure how much lost time will results from these accidents/incidents. Workplace health related issues such as illnesses due to occupational hygiene, mental health, obesity and overweight issues to name a few, can be harder to measure in regards to the impact on the effected person and may lie undetected for some time leading to an increase in the detrimental outcome for the affected person and can be much harder to determine how long the issue may take to improve and the long term effects associated.

The Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012-2022 list the priority work related disorders that have been identified as National priorities for the first 5 years of the Australian Strategy.

  • Musculoskeletal disorders
  • Mental Disorders
  • Cancers (including skin cancer)
  • Contact Dermatitis
  • Noise induced hearing loss

These priority disorders highlight the importance of concentrating on health as well as safety.

Adding to this many state and territory governments have recently implemented promotions for health and well-being in the workplace. The ACT government reports “A 2010 AIWH report (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2010). Risk factors and participation in work) found that 96% of working –age Australians had at least one chronic disease risk factor and 72% had multiple risk factors”. The ACT government states that the greatest risk factors linked to chronic disease are “tobacco smoking, alcohol misuse, poor diet, physical inactivity and unhealthy weight” and “these risk factors lead to reduced productivity and participation in the workplace.

Companies need to recognise the importance of improving health and wellbeing in the workplace especially since Medibank Private reported that the estimated cost of absenteeism is about $7 billion each year to the Australian Economy and on top of that an estimated cost of $34.1 billion each year due to presenteeism.

There are many issues related to presenteeism:-

  • If attending work sick the employee can intensify their illness resulting in them having to take a longer period of sick leave to recover
  • Exhaustion from trying to work whilst requiring rest and recovery
  • Passing a contagious illness onto other employees leading to further absenteeism and presenteeism for the company
  • Unable to work at the usual productivity rate
  • Increased likelihood of making mistakes

Medibank Private surveyed 3,620 employees from corporate and small businesses in Australia. They were assessed across 8 key areas including physical activity, nutrition, body weight, stress, sleep, pain, medical health, risk behaviour (smoking, drinking, irregular use of sun block). Each participant was given a Health and Wellbeing score between 1-100. Those scoring less than 30 were considered to have poor healthy behaviours, those between 70-100 were considered to have good health and lifestyle habits.

See the tables in the below link in regards to Medibank Privates findings comparing the health and wellbeing score versus annual days absent in a year. People with low health and wellbeing scores recorded up to 9 times more absent days than those who were scored with a high health and wellbeing score.

The trend is also reflected in the graph comparing productivity and effective working hours. Those with a higher health and well-being score received a higher rank in productivity and effective work hours over the period of a month.

(Medibank Private, The Health of Australia’s Workforce, 2005)

It is clear that not only do companies need to implement safety initiatives and measures to reduce the risk of injury and damage in the work place to protect their people, products, plant and premiums, they also need to invest in making the workplace a healthy environment physically, mentally and emotionally not only for their staff but also for the good of their business.

Phoebe Lahey [email protected]