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Strengthen your business by good work design

Professor Niki Ellis

Presented by: Professor Niki Ellis (Occupational and public health physician, NE&A Pty. Ltd.)

Run time: 6:42

Download a copy of this podcast (MP3, 9 MB)

Strengthen your business by good work design

Presented by: Professor Niki Ellis, Occupational and public health physician, NE&A Pty. Ltd.

[Start of transcript]

Anthony Frangi:

Professor Niki Ellis is an occupational and public health physician and one of the speakers here at the Work health and wellbeing forum 2019. Professor Niki Ellis, welcome.

Professor Niki Ellis:

Hello.

Anthony Frangi:

Why should we address chronic disease risks in the workplace?

Professor Niki Ellis:

Well, I think that they're becoming a very important part of the profile that people are seeing in workplaces. Previously, we were really focused on injuries that occurred in workplaces, but now chronic illnesses are the conditions which take up most of our time. These are the conditions that the workers have to bear, so our profiles, our health profiles have changed.

Anthony Frangi:

When we talk about chronic illnesses, what are we talking about?

Professor Niki Ellis:

Well, the ones that are really obvious are musculoskeletal disorders and mental health conditions, and we know that they form the most frequent reasons for absenteeism, whether it's compensable or non-compensable. But I think there are other conditions that we've underestimated in terms of the relationship to work. So, for example, we know that stress contributes to cardiovascular disease, we know that stress can also contribute to Type 2 diabetes, and we know that a small proportion of cancer is due to occupational factors. So we've really put all of this into the "too hard" basket for a long time, and we've run out of road. Mental health has really brought this to the fore, and we need to think slightly differently about how we manage health in the workplace.

Anthony Frangi:

Mental health is a particular problem among young people today, isn't it?

Professor Niki Ellis:

Well, mental health is a problem amongst all age groups, but it's a big problem, it's very prevalent amongst young people.

Anthony Frangi:

Why do we need to focus on work health and wellbeing? Because it can be a problem wherever we go, whether it's at home mainly, but why should... Why the workplace today?

Professor Niki Ellis:

Well, it's win-win. We now know there's really good evidence that if employers invest in health and wellbeing programmes that are very well designed, then they will see the benefits, as well as the workforce seeing the benefits, as well as the broader community seeing the benefits. And the benefits that employers will see are gains in productivities associated with reduction in injury rates. I know, why would being healthy reduce injury rates? We don't really know why. Also, reduction in absenteeism, increased engagement, increases in quality, all of that contributing to an increase in productivity. But also, society's expectations are changing, and we know now that society is looking more closely at how workplaces, how companies contribute to society, and they have an expectation that they will be caring for the health of the workforce.

Anthony Frangi:

We know that the focus is most of the time on our staff, but what about supervisors, managers, coordinators, CEOs, managing directors? How do we get the message through to them?

Professor Niki Ellis:

Well, if we don't get the message through to them, it won't work, because the interesting thing about this more complex environment is that it has to be a strategic investment. We need to have the compliance with workplace health and safety law, which we've always had. That doesn't go away. We still expect employers to accept that responsibility, but now we're saying, "Hey, employers, you can also get some extra benefits if you invest beyond that." And we're not going to get that to work unless we have even more engagement from leaders than we've had in the past.

Anthony Frangi:

Is it hard to monitor all staff and how they might be staying healthy?

Professor Niki Ellis:

Yes, I mean, it's an extra thing that has to be done, but it's not hard to find out what issues the workforce are concerned about. That's quite easy to do, and I think that we don't do that very well at the moment. So I think that a first step is actually finding out what are the issues people are concerned about, and you might find out they're different to the ones that you've been focusing on. So, fatigue might be higher than you imagine. That's often the case. People are definitely going to be worried about mental health, and probably your programme up until now has not done very much about that. So, that's a good starting point.

Anthony Frangi:

Do the health risks vary from place to place, from workplace to workplace?

Professor Niki Ellis:

Yeah, they do, and that's why I think that it's important to actually ask the workforce what are the most important issues for them, because they're going to be the drivers. It's going to be win-win. They're going to be the drivers of productivity gains, working with the issues that are really, really important to that workforce and to that business. And that can depend on the nature of work and the nature of the hazards, but it can also depend on the demographics of that workforce, or even where it is located. There's a number of factors.

Anthony Frangi:

How do we start a conversation in the workplace?

Professor Niki Ellis:

Starting a conversation is really starting to talk about, "What are the health issues that are important to you, and what are we doing now that you think works well, and what are we doing now that you think could work better?" And of all the bits and pieces that are all over the shop because they're all in different silos, let's bring those people together and start talking about what we're trying to achieve in the bigger picture. So, that can be done with a combination of meetings of relevant streams coming together and having a conversation, probably for the first time. It can be through surveys or focus groups with different people. And it's got to be led from the top. It's got to be... You've got to create an environment where people know that their contributions are going to be valued.

Anthony Frangi:

What are the risks of it becoming too personal, too private, if someone is in a situation in the workplace where they have a significant health risk, and the expectation is for the workplace to help them as much as they can?

Professor Niki Ellis:

I think that privacy is a big issue, and we know, particularly with regard to mental health, that people feel the stigma and people are very... There's many cases where people have been reluctant to speak about their concerns in the workplace, so you have to work hard to create a safe environment where people are going to be trusting enough to offer that kind of information up. At the session today, we heard a wonderful case study from Peter Gould from Redland City Council, and I really liked that idea that he had-

[End of transcript]

Presented by: Professor Niki Ellis, Occupational and public health physician, NE&A Pty. Ltd.

[Start of transcript]

Anthony Frangi:

Professor Niki Ellis is an occupational and public health physician and one of the speakers here at the Work health and wellbeing forum 2019. Professor Niki Ellis, welcome.

Professor Niki Ellis:

Hello.

Anthony Frangi:

Why should we address chronic disease risks in the workplace?

Professor Niki Ellis:

Well, I think that they're becoming a very important part of the profile that people are seeing in workplaces. Previously, we were really focused on injuries that occurred in workplaces, but now chronic illnesses are the conditions which take up most of our time. These are the conditions that the workers have to bear, so our profiles, our health profiles have changed.

Anthony Frangi:

When we talk about chronic illnesses, what are we talking about?

Professor Niki Ellis:

Well, the ones that are really obvious are musculoskeletal disorders and mental health conditions, and we know that they form the most frequent reasons for absenteeism, whether it's compensable or non-compensable. But I think there are other conditions that we've underestimated in terms of the relationship to work. So, for example, we know that stress contributes to cardiovascular disease, we know that stress can also contribute to Type 2 diabetes, and we know that a small proportion of cancer is due to occupational factors. So we've really put all of this into the "too hard" basket for a long time, and we've run out of road. Mental health has really brought this to the fore, and we need to think slightly differently about how we manage health in the workplace.

Anthony Frangi:

Mental health is a particular problem among young people today, isn't it?

Professor Niki Ellis:

Well, mental health is a problem amongst all age groups, but it's a big problem, it's very prevalent amongst young people.

Anthony Frangi:

Why do we need to focus on work health and wellbeing? Because it can be a problem wherever we go, whether it's at home mainly, but why should... Why the workplace today?

Professor Niki Ellis:

Well, it's win-win. We now know there's really good evidence that if employers invest in health and wellbeing programmes that are very well designed, then they will see the benefits, as well as the workforce seeing the benefits, as well as the broader community seeing the benefits. And the benefits that employers will see are gains in productivities associated with reduction in injury rates. I know, why would being healthy reduce injury rates? We don't really know why. Also, reduction in absenteeism, increased engagement, increases in quality, all of that contributing to an increase in productivity. But also, society's expectations are changing, and we know now that society is looking more closely at how workplaces, how companies contribute to society, and they have an expectation that they will be caring for the health of the workforce.

Anthony Frangi:

We know that the focus is most of the time on our staff, but what about supervisors, managers, coordinators, CEOs, managing directors? How do we get the message through to them?

Professor Niki Ellis:

Well, if we don't get the message through to them, it won't work, because the interesting thing about this more complex environment is that it has to be a strategic investment. We need to have the compliance with workplace health and safety law, which we've always had. That doesn't go away. We still expect employers to accept that responsibility, but now we're saying, "Hey, employers, you can also get some extra benefits if you invest beyond that." And we're not going to get that to work unless we have even more engagement from leaders than we've had in the past.

Anthony Frangi:

Is it hard to monitor all staff and how they might be staying healthy?

Professor Niki Ellis:

Yes, I mean, it's an extra thing that has to be done, but it's not hard to find out what issues the workforce are concerned about. That's quite easy to do, and I think that we don't do that very well at the moment. So I think that a first step is actually finding out what are the issues people are concerned about, and you might find out they're different to the ones that you've been focusing on. So, fatigue might be higher than you imagine. That's often the case. People are definitely going to be worried about mental health, and probably your programme up until now has not done very much about that. So, that's a good starting point.

Anthony Frangi:

Do the health risks vary from place to place, from workplace to workplace?

Professor Niki Ellis:

Yeah, they do, and that's why I think that it's important to actually ask the workforce what are the most important issues for them, because they're going to be the drivers. It's going to be win-win. They're going to be the drivers of productivity gains, working with the issues that are really, really important to that workforce and to that business. And that can depend on the nature of work and the nature of the hazards, but it can also depend on the demographics of that workforce, or even where it is located. There's a number of factors.

Anthony Frangi:

How do we start a conversation in the workplace?

Professor Niki Ellis:

Starting a conversation is really starting to talk about, "What are the health issues that are important to you, and what are we doing now that you think works well, and what are we doing now that you think could work better?" And of all the bits and pieces that are all over the shop because they're all in different silos, let's bring those people together and start talking about what we're trying to achieve in the bigger picture. So, that can be done with a combination of meetings of relevant streams coming together and having a conversation, probably for the first time. It can be through surveys or focus groups with different people. And it's got to be led from the top. It's got to be... You've got to create an environment where people know that their contributions are going to be valued.

Anthony Frangi:

What are the risks of it becoming too personal, too private, if someone is in a situation in the workplace where they have a significant health risk, and the expectation is for the workplace to help them as much as they can?

Professor Niki Ellis:

I think that privacy is a big issue, and we know, particularly with regard to mental health, that people feel the stigma and people are very... There's many cases where people have been reluctant to speak about their concerns in the workplace, so you have to work hard to create a safe environment where people are going to be trusting enough to offer that kind of information up. At the session today, we heard a wonderful case study from Peter Gould from Redland City Council, and I really liked that idea that he had-

[End of transcript]