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What is a healthy workplace?

Healthy workplaces are becoming more important as the changing nature of work is putting pressure on businesses to remain competitive and productive.

The World Health Organisation defines a healthy workplace as “one where workers and managers collaborate to use a continual improvement process to protect and promote the health, safety and wellbeing of all workers and the sustainability of the workplace.”

Healthy workplaces:

  • take into consideration the Principles of good work design. Recognising effective design of good work considers:
    • the work
    • the physical working environment
    • the workers
  • understand the impacts the work environment and the type of work can have on the health of workers
  • support worker health and wellbeing through prevention and early detection of chronic disease risks (e.g. smoking, poor nutrition, harmful alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, obesity and poor mental health) and how they interact with business outcomes
  • provide programs designed to make healthy choices the easy choice for workers
  • incorporate health and wellbeing initiatives into business systems as a sustainable intervention.

Key elements of programs promoted within a healthy workplace :

  • Workplace factors (healthy places) - provide a physical, cultural and organisational environment that supports healthy lifestyle choices for workers, supply chain and networks. Healthy places strategies should:
    • build on a solid foundation of an effective safety management system
    • be complementary to workplace health and safety systems and duties
    • include consideration of work design and the work environment, and ensure these are contributing to positive health outcomes for workers
    • adhere to principles of good work design.
  • Individual factors (healthy people) – provide access to health information and build the knowledge and skills of workers to adopt healthy lifestyles.
  • Consultation and communication – consult with workers to address their needs and keep everyone informed and motivated through targeted communication. Promote participation in activities, encourage feedback and ongoing review of initiatives.

Benefits of investing in work health

Broadening the scope of your workplace health and safety systems to include work health and wellbeing can have considerable benefits for your business.

An effective health, safety and wellbeing program should be viewed as a long-term investment and it is important to be realistic about the expected timeframes to realise these benefits. Below is a table outlining the outcomes you could expect over the short/medium/long term:

Within a few months Within one to two years Within three to five years (or longer)*
  • Improved worker engagement
  • Improved team cohesiveness
  • Improved health behaviours of workers
  • Improved levels of energy and concentration of workers
  • Improved health status of workers
  • Improved corporate image/social responsibility
  • Improved productivity
  • Indirect cost savings (job satisfaction, skills retention)
  • Reduction of stress and poor mental health
  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Reduced workplace injuries
  • Reduced workers’ compensation costs up to 32 per cent)1
  • A savings of up to $6 for every $1 invested in employee wellbeing1
  • Reduction in employee risk factors by up to 56 per cent1
  • Prevention of musculoskeletal disorders

*Table adapted from WorkCover Tasmania’s simple guide to Workplace Health and Wellbeing.

1. Chapman LS. Meta-evaluation of worksite health promotion economic return studies: 2012 update. The Art of Health Promotion 2012; 26(4).

In addition to the business outcomes achieved, there are benefits to the individual worker with participating in a health, safety and wellbeing program including:

  • improved health awareness and knowledge
  • improved physical and mental wellbeing
  • increased worker enjoyment and fulfilment including improved creativity and innovation
  • increased resilience against illness
  • decreased likelihood to suffer manual handling injuries or strains.

Research to support business case for work health

A number of Australian and international research studies show work health and wellbeing is closely linked to productivity, risk of injury, business costs and return to work. Below are some of the results of these studies. This data can be used as part of a business case to gain management support and approval for a health, safety and wellbeing program. See also health of workforce data to further assist in developing a business case and benchmarking your organisation to others in your industry sector.

Costs to business

  • The direct and indirect financial cost in Australia of obesity alone (not including those who are considered overweight) was estimated at $37.7 billion in 2008-2009, with $6.4 billion being attributed to loss in workplace productivity2
  • Workers who are obese have higher rates of workplace injuries and accidents, claim durations and medical costs associated with obesity.3-7 This may place pressure on workers' compensation schemes in the future.
  • In 2014, the annual cost of absenteeism to the Australian economy was $44 billion and the estimated cost of presenteeism was $35 billion. 8
  • The four main causes of presenteeism are unhealthy lifestyles, workers with illnesses going to work, allergies and asthma, poor work-life balance and high levels of work related stress.16
  • In 2013-14, the cost of work related injuries and diseases in Queensland was estimated to be $5.8 billion, of which employers bore 10 per cent of total cost of work related injuries18.
  • Half of the loss in workplace productivity is due to chronic conditions such as headaches, neck/back pain and hay fever, and half is related to chronic diseases such as arthritis, cardiovasciular disease (e.g. heart attacks and stroke), cancer (e.g. breast and colon cancer) and diabetes.9
  • Mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces $10.9 billion each year.10 This consists of $4.7 billion in absenteeism, $6.1 billion in presenteeism and $146 million in workers compensation claims.10

Risk of injury

  • Injury risk is 13 per cent higher for obese or overweight workers compared to workers with a healthy weight. 22
  • Obesity increases the risk of injury, including an increased probability of slips, trips and falls and musculoskeletal injury.19
  • Recovery from injury takes longer for obese people, with the average hospital stay significantly longer.19
  • Obesity is associated with sleep apnoea, which consequently leads to fatigue. Fatigue is an injury risk for those operating machinery and drivers. 19
  • Workers who smoked have a 38 per cent higher risk of work-related injury than those who have never smoked20.
  • Type 2 diabetes and depression have been found to increase the risk of workplace injury.11
  • High job demands increase the risk of safety shortcuts and fatigue which can lead to accidents or injury.11 Those with co-morbidities are at an increasingly higher risk.11
  • Long working hours and shift work can lead to a variety of health effects (e.g. reduction in quality/quantity of sleep, fatigue, anxiety, depression, increase risk of heart disease and gastrointestinal disorders) and increased safety risks (e.g. reduced alertness affecting safe operation of plant and machinery).12
  • Work-related stress is associated with higher rates of workplace accidents and injury.13
  • High staff turnover, low management support and low job satisfaction are associated with increased rates of workplace injury.14


  • The healthiest Australian employees are almost three times more productive than their unhealthy colleagues.16
  • Workers with medium to high health risks are three times more likely to file workers compensation claims.17
  • Workers with two or more chronic diseases have 2.5 times longer sickness absences than healthy workers 23
  • Workers who are overweight/obese miss more than twice as many workdays for work-related injuries compared to workers of a healthy weight.7
  • Excess weight and physical inactivity are associated with employees' work performance. Obese workers are more likely to take sick leave, have longer injury severity and recovery time off work and be less productive.2-7
  • In 2001, it was estimated that more than four million days per year were lost by Australian workplaces due to obesity.5
  • Two and a half million work days are missed annually because of personal alcohol use.7
  • On average, 6.5 working days of productivity are lost annually per employee as a result of presenteeism.16
  • Employees who consider their workplace mentally unhealthy take four times as many sick days than those who consider their workplace mentally healthy. Creating a mentally healthy workplace generates an average return of $2.30 in improved productivity for every $1 invested. 10
  • Productivity losses of those with chronic diseases account for 537 thousand full-time employment years and their carers 47 thousand part-time employment years. If chronic disease was eliminated Australian economic productivity could increase by 10 percent.21

Return to work

  • Work absence tends to perpetuate itself; for example, the longer someone is off work, the less likely they are to return to work. If the person is off work for24:
    • 20 days the chance of ever getting back to work is 70 per cent
    • 45 days the chance of ever getting back to work is 50 per cent
    • 70 days the chance of ever getting back to work is 35 per cent.
  • This long-term work absence, work disability and unemployment are harmful to physical and mental health and wellbeing.  The psychological problems (e.g. anxiety, depression) of being away from work may have consequences associated with physical health due to uptake of negative lifestyle choices such as smoking, harmful alcohol consumption and drug use24.


1 Chapman LS. Meta-evaluation of worksite health promotion economic return studies: 2012 update. The Art of Health Promotion 2012; 26(4).

2 KMPG. Economic modelling of the impact of obesity and obesity interventions. Medibank Private/KMPG; 2010.

3 Tao X, Su P, Yuspeh L, Lavin RA, Kalia-Satwah N, Bernacki EJ. Is Obesity associated with adverse workers’ compensation claims outcomes? Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine 2016; 58(9):880-884.

4 Chenoweth DH, Rager RC, Haynes RG. Relationship between body mass index and workers’ compensation claims and costs: results from the North Carolina League of Municipalities Database. Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine 2015; 57:931–937.

5 Kleinman N, Abouzaid S, Andersen L, Wang Z, Powers A. Cohort analysis assessing medical and nonmedical cost associated with obesity in the workplace. Journal of Occupupational & Environmental Medicine 2014; 56:161–170.

6 Ostbye T, Stroo M, Eisenstein EL, Peterson B, Dement J. Is overweight and class I obesity associated with increased health claims costs? Obesity 2014; 22:1179–1186.

7 Van Nuys K, Globe D, Ng-Mak D, Cheung H, Sullivan J, Goldman D. The association between employee obesity and employer costs: evidence from a panel of U.S. employers. American Journal of Health Promotion 2014; 28:277-285.

8 Australian Industry Group. Absenteeism & presenteeism survey report 2015. Sydney (AUST): AiG; 2015.

9 Marlo K, Serxner S. Beyond ROI: Building employee health & wellness value of investment. National Business Group on Health/Optum – White paper. WHAA; 2015

10 PriceWaterhouseCoopers Australia. Creating a mentally healthy workplace: return on investment analysis [Internet]. Sydney (AUST): PwC; 2014.

11 Kubo J, Goldstein BA, Cantley LF, Tessier-Sherman B, Galusha D, Slade MD, Chu IM, Cullen MR. Contribution of health status and prevalent chronic disease to individual risk for workplace injury in the manufacturing environment. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2014; 71:159:166.

12 Caruso C. Negative impacts of shift work and long work hours. Rehabilitation Nursing 2014; 39(1):16-25.

13 Turner N, Herschcovis MS, Riech TC, Totterdell P. Work –family interference, psychological distress, and workplace injuries. Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology 2014; 87(4):715-732.

14 McCaughey D McGhan G, Walsh EM, Rathert C, Belue R. The relationship of positive work environments and workplace injury: Evidence from the National Nursing Assistant Survey Health Care Management Review 2014; 39(1):75-88.

15 Roche A, Pidd K, Kostadinov V. Alcohol and drug-related absenteeism: a costly problem. Public Health 2016; 40(3):236-238.

16 Medibank Private. Sick at work report. Medibank Private; 2011.

17 Medibank Private 2005, The health of Australia’s workforce.

18 Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (2016) Cost of Workplace Incidents in Queensland: 2013-14 Update

19 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2011, ‘Obesity and Injury in Australia: A review of the literature’.

20 Van Nuys, K., Globe, D., Ng-Mak, D., Cheung, H., Sullivan, J & Goldman, D. (2014)

21 Business Council of Australia. Selected facts and statistics on Australia’s healthcare sector. Melbourne: BCA; 2011.

22 Dong, Z.S., Wantg, Z. & Largay, J.A. (2015)

23 Casimirri, E. et al (2014)

24 Royal College of Physicians Consensus Statement (2011). Realising the Health Benefits of Work.

Last updated
27 November 2017

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