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People listening to presentation

Why We Need to Listen

minute read

Written by Natalie Schwatka on October 24, 2022

This October, I had privilege of attending and presenting at the 3rd International Symposium to Advance Total Worker Health®. I observed and engaged in thought leadership around what research, practice and education look like in the field of occupational health and safety. I walked away thinking about not only how important all three are, but how can we integrate them better? In doing so, we may be able to understand how to influence health in the workplace.

The answer to my question was listening.

"You just listen."

This gets at the heart of our quest to integrate Total Worker Health research, practice and education.

A sense of urgency

In our field, we have a sense of urgency to protect and promote workforce health. At the conference, I heard about a range of interventions designed to gain worker input and buy-in. I also heard about research findings that might point to interventional strategies, such as James Kunz’s (one of our Mountain & Plains Education and Research Center trainees) findings that workplace support may promote better sleep in the face of workplace stress.

Our sense of urgency moves many in the field to develop interventions to influence workplace change without first considering questions that can impact intervention usefulness, such as organizational context, worker voice, feasibility, and training transfer.

In my own research, I have developed and evaluated several educational-style interventions. While they demonstrate some short-term changes, I question what we can do to effect sustainable change. I’ll never forget what one foreman told me years ago after a supervisory training, “This is great, but my superintendent doesn’t care about this stuff.” This act of listening led me (and others at the Center for Health, Work & Environment) to develop and evaluate a senior-level leadership training.

Real world application

Beyond the symposium, there are many Total Worker Health (TWH) intervention examples in the peer-reviewed literature that may or may not move into real world practice. My students and I review them in our Certificate in Total Worker Health® courses and always walk away with questions about intervention design, evaluation, and applicability to different working contexts. I educate my students about how hard intervention research is and how there are always limitations.

However, it does make me question how these studies could be useful for the current and future TWH professionals seeking to apply our research to their work. These parties need to be connected, in real time, to our research to understand what we tried, what did and did not work, what results we saw, and what it means for them.

Additionally, a feedback loop (in which listening is always a part) between researchers and practitioners can enhance both research and practice. I heard this loud and clear during sessions on TWH education for graduate students and working professionals at the Symposium. I have also heard this while serving on a professional society task force and engaging with students. This act of listening led me infuse research into our new TWH professional program that aims to educate working professionals on the TWH approach.

You just listen

Perhaps the most moving session from the Symposium was about the mental health of Colorado’s healthcare workforce. In Curt Drennen’s summary about how the state of Colorado supported mental health during the pandemic he said, “You just listen.” While he was talking about what leadership could do to support their workforce’s mental health, the short phrase hit home for me in a more general way. It gets at the heart of our quest to integrate TWH research, practice and education.

If we want to transform the way organizations influence their workforce’s health, safety and well-being, we need to listen. Listen to what workers need. Listen to what organizations need and what they can do with existing resources. Listen for community resources that may be able to support organizations and workers. Listen to student needs, both university students and practicing professionals, who are trying to learn about TWH.

When we listen, we will be able to increase the relevance of TWH interventions, set research up for success in translating it into practice, and increase educational opportunities.

After I presented my research findings at the conference, there was a clear need to customize resources by job type in the agricultural industry. An audience member asked what could be done next. The next thing I knew, a representative from a company we work closely with responded that they have already been doing this exact thing - customizing their communications and resources to job type! What a great example of listening.