Where does health and safety fit with a happy life?

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Employers are taking an increasingly holistic approach to their wellness programmes – and a holistic approach to individual worker happiness is congruent with sustainable success.

The major pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline has a voluntary two-day wellness course that, as well as tips on diet and effective exercise, includes a session on how to meditate mindfully. A cynic might suggest that concentrating solely on the movement of air while breathing in and out – or the feel of wood on your bare feet as you very slowly walk about it – is difficult when you’re also currently mindful of what might happen if a large competitor buys you out.

It is, however, an example of an increasingly holistic approach that organisations are taking to their wellness programmes.

At a recent international health and safety symposium, a representative of the Chopra Foundation gave a very well-received talk on the five key elements to a happy, productive and fulfilled life.

A quick overview to those elements suggest that health and safety is a core element in people’s happiness and the closer an organisation is to having a world-class safety culture, the closer it is to providing an environment supportive of the five elements of a fulfilled life.

What are the five key elements to a happy life?

Have a job that you enjoy
Many writers emphasise that we are unlikely to excel at anything unless we enjoy doing it, as we simply won’t put in the energy, effort and passion to maximise our potential. Although economic realities can crash against Hollywood’s follow-your-dream films, sometimes they illustrate the principle.

That is why it is striking to know that some very successful people don’t really enjoy what they do. For example, according to the biography of John McEnroe, the famous American tennis player, he didn’t actually enjoy his career; it was driven mostly by a fear of failure. He certainly excelled, but this internal conflict definitely showed sometimes.

Organisations can help employees to enjoy their jobs by maximising involvement and empowerment while being mindful not to over-empower to a level that is stressful.

Health and safety is something that nearly everyone cares about and being involved in a successful process that shows results can be hugely rewarding and energising. For example, I worked with a safety volunteer that once told me: “I’ve been with this company for 20 years and last night [preparing a presentation] was the first time I’ve ever done anything for the company in my own time… my wife nearly had a heart attack!”

Social and financial wellbeing
Social and financial wellbeing is related to having a good network of friends and family, with whom you spend a decent amount of quality time, and having enough money. The relationship with money isn’t entirely linear as, for example, some research first published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that as many people are made less happy by a big lottery win as those who become happier. Basically, many handle the change badly. Of course, the better we do with the other four elements of a happy life, the less we need the fifth.

Books such as The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone argue that absolute wealth isn’t as important to happiness as relative wealth compared with others. Even people who think they have both in balance can be very wrong. In short, some of us are stressing ourselves doing things we don’t enjoy, to earn money to spend on things we don’t need, just to impress people we don’t like.

Physical wellbeing
When people like Jason Anker, who fell from a ladder at work and was left paralysed from the waist down, and Ken Woodward, who was involved in a chemical accident that cost him three senses, talk to audiences about their accident and its consequences, they clearly articulate the importance of physical wellbeing in the most profound way.

As part and opposite of the same situation, there are examples and research that show how having good levels of physical, emotional and intellectual energy help to deal with the work demands without getting stressed and also help to maximise our potential.

Community wellbeing
This fifth element of happiness stresses that we need to contribute. I would argue that most teachers, nurses and safety professionals get an element of this from a job that is vocational, but many people will get the balance from voluntary work.

Some organisations allow workers a period of paid leave during which they can work with voluntary service organisations. Safety initiatives linked to charity donations seem, in my experience, to generate a greater sense of wellbeing and overall energy and motivation than simple bonuses. Being actively involved in a safety process that helps to keep colleagues safer also helps fill this need.

The factors together
Some studies show a strong link between the level of engagement of a workforce and levels of productivity. An averagely engaged and energised workforce is likely to be averagely productive, but a highly engaged and energised workforce will, most likely, be highly productive. This is a win message that everyone can buy into and a hugely important topic in its own right.

The health and safety world has long understood and researched the dynamic between safety and productivity. The provision of home and/or flexible working to facilitate a work-life balance, sports and social facilities, or just the provision of a calm, quiet area where employees can collect their thoughts are also elements that have proved to influence the wellbeing of the workforce.

A holistic approach to individual worker happiness is entirely congruent with sustainable success generally, and a thriving safety culture contributes to this long-term success both directly and indirectly.

Dr Tim Marsh is managing director of Ryder Marsh Safety Limited


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