Why wellbeing programmes shouldn't come before sound OH provision

Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

The health element of safety and health is receiving more coverage than ever. This is a welcome development because, as some of us have been pointing out for a long time, accidents at work injure far fewer people than are made ill by the same activities.

Dealing with the “slow accidents” of exposure to harmful agents that may take years to express themselves in ill health is a sensible, rational response to the evidence.

But hang on a minute, what’s all this stuff about wellbeing? Organisations that have one-third of work-related ill health attributed to musculoskeletal disorders and another one-third to stress-related mental incapacity, suddenly decide to take health action and begin poster campaigns on the importance of five portions of fruit and veg a day. At board level, heart conditions among staff are discussed for the first time. 

As safety and health professionals, we need to take a clear view on such sudden switches from ignoring health to going overboard and saying “I care so much about my workers that we’re going to run smoking cessation classes and subsidise gym membership”.

Employees’ health has a significant bearing on their work performance and their sickness levels. The workplace is the ideal place to provide information on how people can maintain a healthy body and mind – which is in everyone’s interest. But individual resilience is not the foundation of an employer’s responsibility to the workforce, though resilience is the buzzword heard at almost every conference now and the subject of much research. 

Healthy heart’ campaigns, however worthy, should not be the underpinning of any focus on health

Shifting responsibility on to the worker to be more resilient can be a way to pass the buck for employee protection. Doing nothing about a bullying organisation with unrealistic work schedules for staff on zero-hours contracts except running stress resilience classes is not acceptable.

The employer that brings together the workers, the workplace, the materials, the equipment and the work processes has an obligation to manage the risks that arise – risks to health as well as safety. That, and not “healthy heart” campaigns, however worthy, should underpin any focus on health. Our workplaces are creating the next generation of workers with lung disease from dust inhalation and asthmatics because of their inadequately-controlled exposure to airborne sensitisers. We still allow young people to enter workplaces that cause noise-induced hearing loss, hand-arm vibration syndrome and, above all, mental distress and 
musculoskeletal harm.

Wellbeing programmes have their place; they are valuable in themselves and are an effective way to engage a diverse workforce. We saw this at the London 2012 Olympics construction programme, when a campaign to encourage workers to have breakfast, with an emphasis on porridge, raised all sorts of questions about obesity and diabetes as well as the impact of low blood sugar on construction operatives’ concentration and its contribution to accidents. Talking to people about their health reinforced the efforts we were making to manage the work risks through good occupational hygiene. 

Safety and health professionals should help keep wellbeing programmes in perspective and in their place as a contribution to an OSH strategy. We should not allow a new enthusiasm for doing something about health to distract us into ignoring the fundamental responsibility of employers to provide safe and healthy places of work.


Lawrence Waterman OBE CFIOSH is managing partner at the Park Health and Safety Partnership, and was formerly head of health and safety for the London Olympic Delivery Authority. He is past president of IOSH.

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  • I've enjoyed reading this

    Permalink Submitted by Alicia Fuentes on 9 November 2016 - 01:33 pm

    I've enjoyed reading this article and i am one to support that there is need for balance between a robust occupational health programme and well-being.
    Sometimes, the focus on well-being may seem easier than tackling the bigger issues. Some organisations may think it has met its KPI to run a wellness programme and have a health fair and bring some presenters to speak on heart disease and healthy eating and stress.

    It also depends on where the specific organisation is on its journey. I am working in an organisation where liquid soap is not even provided in the washrooms, there are no heaters for the winter period because it is claimed that the winter is not a real winter, and there is no actual ergonomics program in place. I don't know how to get them to focus on bigger issues related to a health program. It is not just the mindset of the management but the workers also don't care about their health at all. They eat badly, stay awake long hours and get minimum sleep and they do not exercise, and claim they have grown accustomed to this, e.g. during their fasting periods for Ramadan.

    Thank you for sharing this article.

  • Lawrence, having worked

    Permalink Submitted by shane on 10 November 2016 - 12:03 pm

    Lawrence, having worked developing the OH strategy with you for both 2012 and Crossrail, I fully support and agree with the sentiment and comments within your eloquent article.

    I also fully support wellbeing iniatives as an engagement tool and for the positive healt promotion aspects.

    While not trying to be controversial, I fear that the lean towards wellbeing is born of a number of factors-
    Tends to be cheaper
    Tends to be easier
    Remains a lack of trust from workforce who view OH as a tool of management to get rid of, not help employees.

    The latter saddens me as I have spent 18 years in construction challenging that perspective, only to have been dismissed on capability grounds from a role when reality was that the company didnt want to hear or face up to the truth! This a company that sits at the leaders for health forum!

    Much progress has been made but so much more is required, we agree on that

    thanks for sharing and articulating the focus needed

  • really agree about way

    Permalink Submitted by Andrew Kurdziel on 16 November 2016 - 12:14 pm

    really agree about way "wellbeing" can become the flavour of the month and loads of initiatives get launched in its name, while taking the eye off the really serious work related health issues.


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