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How to Help Small Business Leaders Achieve Total Worker Health®

minute read

Written by Laura Veith on April 23, 2021

Organizational change happens in primarily two ways; policies and programs being instituted from the top down or changing leadership practices to demonstrate support for new policies and programs. For small businesses, the latter is less common but more effective in establishing new cultures, policies, and procedures.

Our Center’s Smart + Safe + Well Study demonstrated the impact leadership has in achieving Total Worker® (TWH), a framework for integrating worker and workplace safety, health, and well-being, in small businesses. When small business leaders display TWH leadership, they can help ensure the effectiveness of their health and safety policies and programs. “For example, when leaders consistently follow all safety protocols, they are modeling the safety practices that they would like employees to follow to prevent injuries on the job,” says lead researcher Dr. Natalie Schwatka.

“We developed and evaluated a TWH leadership development program to help small business leaders understand their business’ approach to TWH,” says Dr. Schwatka. “This program also helps them set and meet their TWH goals for their business, employees, and themselves.” A key part of the program was the data that small business leaders used to set their goals. Each leader was given the results of their business, employee, and self-assessments. For many of the small businesses, this was the first time they had an opportunity to review these kinds of data.

In a recent paper published in Occupational Health Science, our team found that its TWH leadership program helped small business leaders improve their self-reported TWH leadership practices. The decision to focus on small businesses was one of many approaches unique to this study. The teams’ emphasis on intervening with senior leadership ventures from the norm in health and safety research, which often studies the practices of supervisors. Additionally, most TWH intervention research includes management in their intervention, such as on a design team, but they do not seek to develop their TWH leadership skills. In Dr. Schwatka’s words, “This project addressed a unique combination of needs.”

The team invited two leaders per small business to the program, a senior leader plus a colleague familiar with the organizations' TWH strategy. “While we didn't design the TWH leadership program to facilitate shared leadership, our findings suggest that this team-based approach may help facilitate distributed influence and responsibility, and lead to organizational change,” says Dr. Schwatka.

The program's methods to help leaders transfer what they learned in the in-person training to their job had some challenges. Many leaders were brand new to the concept of TWH and it was not always easy to apply it to their specific work. The in-person training was highly rated and leaders were engaged and energized to put what they learned into practice. One attendee wrote, “I’m so excited about this and I love the practical info, accountability, and support! This would have been so daunting to try on my own.

However, during the following three months of training transfer strategies (one-on-one coaching, and an online, interactive goal-setting website), leaders were not as engaged. “A unique aspect of our TWH leadership development program was a focus on leaders' own safety, health, and well-being,” says Dr. Schwatka. “The fact that we found increased work-related stress and a lack of engagement amongst our leaders three months after the in-person program suggests that we need to understand how to better support small business leaders as they work to implement a TWH approach.”

The study presents an opportunity to re-think how teams like our Center can help leaders use TWH leadership practices on a day-to-day basis. Using a team-based approach via shared leadership may be a promising method to distribute influence and responsibility, thereby reducing stress and increasing adoption of TWH programs and policies.