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ColoradoSPH Professor Looks at Shared Leadership in the Workplace, Uncovering the Factors that Create Organizational Change

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Written by Laura Veith on April 26, 2022

Most of us are familiar with the concept of micro ergonomics – where machines, the environment, software, and work activities interact with humans. We think of a specific processes or work system designs such as adjustable desks, supportive chairs, custom office lighting, repetitive task movements, etcetera, that are created to help humans at work.

Natalie Schwatka, PhD, prefers to zoom out a bit further. In her research and graduate instruction, she explores macro ergonomics – specifically how leadership impacts the workplace.

Schwatka, assistant professor at the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH) and the Center for Health, Work & Environment (CHWE), is the program director for the ColoradoSPH’s Certificate in Total Worker Health® and is in her final year of a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health K01 career development award studying leadership in the workplace.

413725_665916805514_182633014_oSprouted from her undergrad study of psychology, Schwatka is intrigued by industrial and organizational (IO) psychology principles. “IO is psychology at scale,” she said. “Its’ concepts can be used to influence multiple people at once in an organization.”

Schwatka earned her PhD from the Mountain & Plains Education and Research Center’s (MAP ERC) Occupational Ergonomics & Safety program at Colorado State University and worked directly with the MAP ERC’s IO psychology program on campus.

“Macro ergonomics thinks about the systems and the work environment, leadership being one of those factors. It considers how these systems shape people's ability to be productive and healthy on the job,” Schwatka said.

Total Worker Health leadership

In her research, Schwatka explores the interpersonal relationships in the workplace that drive or inhibit someone’s choices that impact employee health or safety. She digs deep into workplace policies and programs, their design, their implementation within work teams, and cultural aspects that shape workplace health and safety culture.

Here lies the connection with Total Worker Health (TWH), the framework that is foundational to Schwatka’s exploration of leadership and organizational change. These concepts (TWH and macro ergonomics) are both focused on worker health, well-being, productivity, and efficiency. They are concerned with the outcomes of the designed work environment.

“We're trying to change the work environment and its interpersonal social factors. We're focusing on leadership practices that facilitate or hinder any employee health-focused policies and programs,” Schwatka said.

Who are the leaders are in organizations? How do their positions and influence unique to each organization? Schwatka has worked with leadership training interventions at different levels and companies over the years: from supervisors to senior level managers to owners, to understand these nuances.

“We always get great feedback from our leadership trainings, but the challenge for people is the same across the board. ‘How do I actually lead in my organization? How do I meet my goals in the face of all of these challenges that I experience when I go back to work?’”

Starting small

In 2021, Schwatka and other members of CHWE completed a five-year research study exploring the effectiveness of leadership training in implementing TWH. The Smart+Safe+Well (SSWell) Study is the first and only one of its kind to explore TWH practice and leadership. The study was designed to understand how small organizations support the health, safety, and well-being of their workforce and how employees perceive their workplace culture.

In particular, the project showed how critical company leadership is in creating an environment that supports TWH.

“Originally, many of the businesses in our study were only being advised on policies and programs to implement worker health and safety. We were missing the cultural and leadership perspective, which I think really matters when we're thinking about how policies and programs actually work in practice,” Schwatka said. “We needed to help business leaders understand how to connect the value of worker health to the core values of their organization and how to operationalize those cultural changes.”

SSWell leadership training

The SSWell program started testing the added benefit of a leadership program, which served as a model to get a small business owner or other senior leader onboard with the concept of TWH. It also gave senior leaders a framework to understand what TWH looks like in their organization at that moment in time. The training helped them set goals and coached them around those goals afterward.

Through SSWell, Schwatka and her team found that when leadership is committed to workforce health, safety, and well-being, employees are more motivated to engage and participate in TWH initiatives. Their research demonstrates that TWH leadership training can help small business leaders take action to improve their workforce’s health, safety, and well-being.

Who is a leader?

However, the truth is that leaders are sometimes hidden. In fact, anyone can lead their workplace in health and safety practices. Schwatka’s current conviction is to train leadership teams who share responsibility for influencing health and safety at work.

“It's more than just teamwork,” Schwatka said. “I think TWH leadership is empowering everyone, from the owner all the way down to individual workers, to have responsibility for influencing how health, safety and well-being is influenced in the organization.”

“Health and safety or TWH committees should have representatives from management, HR, safety teams and workers, and in theory, work as a team to facilitate the organization's mission around health and safety,” Schwatka said. “Can we give them the leadership skills to actually make it effective? How can we, at a basic level, make sure that they're role modeling?”

Schwatka’s current research explores how to encourage leaders to broker change – a key leadership skill that many struggle with. It involves taking risks, trying something new, communicating with coworkers why change is necessary, and setting expectations that the organization is always going to improve and evaluate.

Leadership applied to school emergency preparedness

Schwatka is bringing her passion for health and safety leadership to CHWE’s newly-funded research project investigating psychological emergency preparedness in schools. The project is co-lead by Courtney Welton-Mitchell PhD, MA, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health and director of the Certificate in Public Health Preparedness & Disaster Response at the ColoradoSPH. It involves co-creation, implementation and evaluation of a psychological preparedness training for the public school workforce, complimenting their current emergency preparedness plans and drills. The project also includes shared leadership and peer support components, encouraging teachers to support one another and engage with emergency preparedness planning and drills.

“We want to help schools better prepare for emergencies through psychological preparedness,” Schwatka said. “We're going to teach teachers about the school district's emergency preparedness plans and train them on how to psychologically prepare for an emergency or crisis. But the way I think that we can implement those best practices is through leadership.”

The intervention will give teachers the skills to influence emergency preparedness practices in their school districts. The research team’s goal is to transform how school districts prepare for emergencies, not only to protect students' and teachers' physical and psychological health, but to equip teachers with leadership skills to make the entire effort more effective. Anyone can lead and leaders are what make the difference.

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