Occupational Health is such a broad topic, but the journey through history has shown a very reactive approach to managing workers’ health and wellbeing to a more proactive approach. When I think about occupational health, I often reflect on my career, which started in the US Navy. I began working on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. To think about going from that to now leading the human resources for a large service-oriented, for-profit organization is a dynamic shift in thought process. I think about the standards for which sailors were held accountable from a safety-perspective and how in today’s working environment, the focus is on holistic well-being. Sure, there is still the focus on doing the job right, in the safest and most efficient manner, but it’s how we live our life that affects an organization as a whole that affects occupational health and wellness the most.

Moving the approach from reactive to proactive took time, but the benefits have been well documented. There has been a lot researched and written about it. The fact is that organizations have to adapt to build a workforce that is living well to meet the increasingly competitive demands on business today. In the past, the thought of occupational health seemed to be about injury and illness prevention while on the job. Organizations implemented reactive policies, or as I’ve heard in the Navy, written in blood. This meant that once it happened to someone, they would write a policy to prevent it from occurring again. In the Navy and many other organizations, the approach became much more proactive in safety prevention approaches. Companies realized that prevention is the key to organizational success. Companies realized that there is a whole world outside of work, and employees need to be living well outside of the organization to influence what goes on inside.

This is a journey, though, and organizations have first to evaluate their place on the path to excellent occupational health. This begins with making sure you have the basics covered, and a workforce proactively assessing risk to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses. Only then can you take your organization into the realm of organizational wellness. If it were easy, everyone would do it. I’ll outline some thoughts on what I believe are action steps any organization can take to build a workplace that promotes healthy living and a positive culture.

There is no debate that wellness leads to better occupational health and performance.

Get the Basics RIGHT, Then Forge the Path to Organizational Wellness

This means having reliable job descriptions from the very beginning, detailing out the physical aspects of a job that can be understood by the associates and any medical provider. If you hire safety-sensitive positions, it is a best practice to have an occupational therapist come onsite and evaluate your jobs and write this for you.

Once you have a solid set of essential physical functions written into your job descriptions, you can use these to evaluate current and future associates to make sure they can do the job.

These steps are a critical component to checking off the compliance and legal requirements related to occupational health.

Train to Risk Assessment and Situational Awareness

Risk assessment is critical for associates to use every day to prevent injury and illness. Every situation is different, and training to have situational awareness to identify and assess hazards continuously, and implementing risk mitigation plans is a game-changer. Organizations want associates to be thinking in the moment about the inherent risk that may be associated with their job all the time.

We can take a lesson from the US military, teach every associate the proactive safety techniques around situational/ operational risk management.

Focus on Lifestyle

Why would a company care about an associate’s personal health and wellness outside of the workplace? All you have to do is perform a simple search on the internet, and you will find a multitude of articles correlating associate wellness to engagement to performance.

It’s hard to find a counter-argument to the idea that wellness is not suitable for an organization and be a critical part of occupational health. It’s also apparent that a million ideas are floating around as to the best way to implement wellness into your workforce. I am a believer in this as well, and have been to conferences focused on wellness, had a wellness administrator on my team, read books on wellness, and tried implementing wellness-related initiatives into my benefits plan.

I’ve found that people are not suddenly going to become interested in living well unless they are faced with a crisis themselves or have always been interested in wellness.

Create Reasons for Change

We all know that a crisis brings opportunity. I think many organizations have seen this, especially this year, in the midst of a pandemic. Organizations have changed to meet changing market conditions. I’m not talking about world-changing events that are totally disruptive in the workplace. I’m talking about providing on-site health assessments, screenings, and opportunities for associates to be given a hard truth about their personal health and well-being. Sometimes that’s all it takes to create a bias for action related to changing a lifestyle. Remember that once that spark is lit, all those resources you’ve been providing will tend to get some attention.

Keep it Fun, and Don’t Lose Focus

Finally, associates like to work in an environment that fosters fun and pride.

At first, these step challenges, fitness events, and other team-building activities will start to become ingrained in your culture. Associates will look for ways to engage in your innovative activities that embrace technology and are FUN!

Where are we now on the journey of occupational wellness? The workforce of now and in the future embraces a proactive approach to occupational health and wellness. It’s a never-ending journey that leadership must confront. As HR professionals, we can be strategic in setting up programs to give the organization a competitive advantage. Continue the good fight, and we will all succeed and grow stronger together!