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Dr. Laura Linnan with mountain background

Improving Worker and Workplace Health: Current Status, Building Capacity and Potential New Directions

minute read

Written by Amanda Kujawa on November 6, 2019

The nature of work as we know it in the U.S. is rapidly changing. The proportion of older workers is growing, the workforce is becoming more diverse, and technology continues to shape and re-shape what we do and how we do it. So how do we begin to predict what the needs are for ensuring the health, safety, and well-being of all workers? To help us answer this question, the Center for Health, Work and Environment hosted Dr. Laura A. Linnan, senior associate dean for academic and student affairs at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health as a guest presenter for our visiting scholar series to present on her latest research on this important topic.  

Dr. Linnan has worked for the past 25 years as a public health practitioner and researcher who works to eliminate chronic disease disparities with multi-level interventions in collaboration with stakeholders. Her multi-disciplinary research teams apply community-based participatory research principles to plan, deliver and evaluate interventions that take place in across a range of settings including worksites, universities, beauty and barbershops, childcare centers, churches, public libraries and other community settings.

Dr. Linnan presented an interesting case: worksite wellness programs — do they matter? Are they worth the investment? What does a successful program look like? We may picture bowls of fruit in the office, a lunch and learn on stress management, or physical fitness challenges. But Dr. Linnan emphasized the importance of a “comprehensive” program in workplaces, applying a Total Worker Health® (TWH) approach.

TWH is defined as policies, programs, and practices that integrate protection from work-related safety and health hazards with promotion of injury and illness prevention efforts to advance worker well-being. As workforce and overall population demographic trends change, taking a TWH approach is essential to not only protect the basic health and safety needs of workers, but to enhance their overall well-being. “It’s really a population health model for looking at ways to prevent versus treat,” Dr. Linnan explained.  “Workplaces need an approach that addresses the  whole person; this means policies and strategies that support employees that are caregivers, , social interactions, physical and mental well-being, and good leadership.”

However, Dr. Linnan confirmed that one size doesn’t fit all. The ability to create and sustain effective programs differs across industry and business size. Dr. Linnan found that 36% of US workplaces report having no budget to support workplace health promotion programs. Only 46% of US workplaces have any health promotion program at all. The larger the workplace, the more likely they are to have a dedicated program and resources for employee health.

The solution? “Start small.” Dr. Linnan said. “Workplaces can gain traction by identifying priorities, engaging leadership, reflecting on how employee health and safety is a core value of the organization.” This helps build the case for TWH and incorporates it as part of the day-to-day operations instead of a standalone. The future of work requires researchers from diverse backgrounds and public health as a whole to prioritize work as a place to prevent disease and promote well-being. That effort is being lead in part by the growing field of TWH and a push for workplaces of all types to ignite good change for all workers.