The nature of work and the factors that influence workplace safety have evolved rapidly over the last two years, and those responsible for managing wellness and injury prevention for employees have learned to adapt with new strategies and a more holistic approach. Already, major employers are spearheading the drive toward a hybrid-work future. Companies like Google, Tesla, Twitter, and many other large enterprises, organizations, and agencies have developed policies allowing employees to work remotely, and it looks increasingly likely that many of these policies will become permanent. But this doesn’t tell the whole story—across the nation, enterprises in manufacturing, transportation, shipping and warehousing, aviation, and many others still retain huge on-site workforces. At the same time, EHS leaders have to contend with an intergenerational workforce consisting of Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennial, and Gen Z employees, each with their own unique learning styles and personal values. Simply applying one style of training, messaging, and programming for a diverse hybrid workforce will no longer cover all the bases—today’s workforce requires solutions that can meet varied ways of learning and engaging with safety concepts.
Any effective safety program in this new hybrid future must offer simultaneous support for a workforce divided between multiple locations and work environments. At the same time, safety plans must account for an aging workforce as well as the rising stress levels and mental health challenges that can diminish worker morale and engagement. In order to combat the costs associated with turnover, absenteeism, fatigue, and injuries, EHS leaders need innovative, integrated solutions that tackle problems at the root.
The Rising Focus on Employee Mental Health
Research supports the idea that mental health is a significant challenge for employees and their employers. Some 85% of workers report that the workplace affects their mental health, and combined with the fact that nearly 1 in 5 US adults report mental illness each year. These rising challenges come with costs that are also escalating, putting strain on budgets. Issues causing workers to miss time cost an average of $37,000 per case (according to the US National Safety Council). At the same time, employers are facing unprecedented rates of turnover, with record numbers of employees leaving or switching jobs over the past year. Even with these additional requirements, safety managers must consider ergonomic risk to be a major priority, and bringing all of these components together into a cohesive strategy presents unique challenges for EHS leaders.
The EHS community is already responding, aiming to reduce those costs and mitigate the risk of lost-time incidents (both mental and physical) by providing whole-person support that addresses all facets of the worker’s experience. Recent research by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development shows that some 75% of workers believe senior leaders considered mental wellness in their safety plans in 2021, up from 61% the previous year. In many ways, the response from EHS leaders utilizes concepts from NIOSH’s Total Worker Health approach to safety and wellness in the workplace, and solutions should match the philosophy of that approach.
What will those solutions look like? Let’s review some of the major trends hitting the EHS world heading into 2022.
The digital safety revolution continues
The rapid increase in the portion of the workforce that works remotely or at home has made it necessary for employers to implement digital solutions that can provide wellness support wherever a worker does their job. These new solutions include virtual ergonomic assessments and evaluations, virtual training sessions, desktop software, and smartphone apps, among others.
Virtual safety solutions
Workers in home offices frequently lack the ergonomic standards and reinforcement that come with working on-site. Virtual assessments are fast becoming a standard for ergonomic support, allowing providers and employers to help employees create more ergonomically safe workspaces and practice safe posture and other behaviors. Desktop software such as DORN’s HealthyWorking stays active in the background on employees’ work computers, providing ongoing reinforcement of best safety practices and reminders to help employees stay active and engaged throughout the day.
Better mental health through technology
Technology can also play a significant role in mitigating mental health issues. The rise of mental health apps for smart devices has enabled employers to provide on-demand support by making available services such as telehealth counseling, mindfulness exercises, and meditation aids, as well as physical activities and exercises that promote emotional and mental wellness. All of these solutions will help employees across varying work environments.
Another major issue of concern for employers in virtually all industries is fatigue, which is closely linked to mental health concerns. Fatigue, which occurs as a direct result of employees not getting enough restful, quality sleep, can be exacerbated by depression and anxiety. Proactive fatigue monitoring, which can consist of a blend of wearable devices and AI-powered predictive software, makes it possible for EHS managers to monitor their workforces for signs of fatigue and create interventions that result in more rest and better engagement at work. With stress levels on the rise, fatigue will become a greater concern for all employees, both remote and on-site.
Mental health is also connected to a variety of other safety and wellness concerns that can affect employees and their employers. Medication usage is among the most pressing concerns for EHS professionals in today’s world, and overuse or abuse of pain medication is often linked to depression, anxiety, and fatigue. The number of fatal on-the-job overdoses has increased by at least 25% each of the last five years, driven by new environmental stressors, chronic pain, and the aging of the workforce. At DORN, we have recorded a 44% reduction in pain medication usage after implementing integrated wellness programming that reaches the majority of the workforce.
Supporting a multigenerational workforce
The average age of the American workforce is of central concern to EHS professionals, and the 45-64 cohort remains a major force in workplaces due to rising costs of living and other factors keeping people at work later into life. Research suggests that older workers are not only more prone to physical injury, chronic pain, and fatigue than their younger colleagues—they’re also more likely to experience severe mental health issues, stemming in large part from cultural bias that discourages people from older generations from seeking support for their mental health. In fact, the 45-64 age cohort is tied to the highest rates of suicide in America.
Tomorrow’s EHS leaders will need to include older employees in their planning even as younger workers continue to join the workforce. Long-tenured workers bring invaluable experience and work culture benefits, which safety professionals should seek to protect through their strategies and programming.
Older workers absorb information differently than their younger counterparts, and training and education programs should be designed with all ages in mind. To accomplish that, safety leaders must create multi-pronged regimens that include in-person support as well as support offered through apps or virtual technology.
At DORN, we believe that data drives direction, while the human component changes behavior. The data revolution in the safety world has been underway for many years, but the importance of informed decision-making has grown substantially as claims costs rise and employees face new challenges to their safety and wellbeing. Simultaneously, it has become more difficult for safety managers to obtain an accurate bird’s-eye perspective of their workforces, since their employees are often split between their homes, company facilities and other sites.
That’s part of why corporate reporting has become increasingly important, especially as work environments evolve and more employees switch to remote work that isn’t as easily observed and monitored by safety professionals. Software and wearable tools are already helping organizations collect more and better data about workplace safety and wellness topics, and the more data available to employers in all industries, the safer the workforce becomes. Beyond wearables, we believe that every program, training or intervention applied to both individuals and employee groups must be measurable for both effectiveness and sustainability.
After a couple of challenging years for the global economy, employers, and their workers, 2022 holds both potential for great growth and significant challenges. As the hybrid workforce becomes the norm, EHS and human resources are becoming more closely linked. The concept of holistic, whole-person wellness and safety will continue to spur innovation of technological solutions and mental health supports.
Is your organization looking to enhance or expand its injury prevention and whole-employee wellness programming in 2022? Contact DORN’s experts today to learn how a combination of technology, ergonomic, and mental health solutions can help you cut costs, prevent injuries and keep employees engaged and productive: [email protected]