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Power at Work: Reflections from the 3rd International Symposium to Advance Total Worker Health®

minute read

Written by David Shapiro on October 31, 2022

Employment is a critical part of a person’s identity and sense of pride. People with steady employment are less likely to live in poverty and more likely to be healthy, but many people in the US have trouble finding and keeping a job. The conditions within the environments where people are born, where they live, learn, work, play and worship, and their age affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.

Researchers Emily Ahonen, PhD, Rachael Jones, PhD, CIH, and Camie Schaefer, PhD, from U-POWER recently presented, “Theories of Power at Work” at the 3rd International Symposium for Total Worker Health® in Bethesda, MD. The Center for Health, Work & Environment co-hosted this event and continues to provide recaps from its many thought-provoking sessions.

"Power shows up in every workplace.”

- Rachael Jones, PhD, CIH

As one of the newest NIOSH-funded Centers of Excellence for Total Worker Health®, the University of Utah’s Center for Promotion of Work Equity Research (U-POWER) aims to explore employment as a critical social determinant of health (SDoH). By studying power dynamics at work, U-POWER aims to deploy a Total Worker Health (TWH) approach to overcome the multifaceted barriers to safe and healthy work.

“Power is a way we can think about all work, across all industries and positions”, Jones said during the presentation. The team at U-POWER aims to understand power within the TWH approach, “because power shows up in every workplace.”

Power structures in the US result in conferring power from one group over others. There is a power dynamic between individual workers and the employer, and this broad force often shapes how our society imagines work. The quality of employment is also affected by, and contributes to, power structures. Generally, in the US, power is shifted to the employer above the employee.

A Total Worker Health approach

U-POWER’s research on the TWH approach aims to determine how to shift power back to employees. The research team is evaluating the effectiveness of workplace supports such as union membership, worker rights and protections, work scheduling control, worker decision-making and worker job autonomy.

Work is a way we distribute power in our society. Systemic racism has generally put people with more power in certain positions compared to others who have less power (e.g., white males with power, women and people of color with less power). This dynamic can be found in the construction industry where foreign-born Latinx workers are more at risk for fatal accidents and injuries than native-born Latinx workers and white workers.

As a new Center of Excellence, U-POWER will be building its work plan around theories of power at work in the next few months. Its research on power dynamics and work as a social determinant of health will be a valuable contribution to the TWH discipline.