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Is Work Hazardous to your Health?
Published Friday, June 2, 2017

Whether you work in a factory or a cubicle, hazards abound. And recent studies have raised concerns about the lingering, adverse health effects of work that aren’t directly addressed by office safety videos or workplace calisthenics.

“Since the time of Hippocrates, we’ve known that work can be harmful to workers,” says Robert McLellan, chief of occupational and environmental medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Lebanon. “What’s new is an increasing recognition of how our jobs can contribute to chronic physical and mental health problems and impact our lifestyle choices.”

McLellan has been the lead author of several articles about the relationship between work and health. He says that while employee safety is among the top concerns of employers, occupational safety is as much about the psychic and social stressors that employees are exposed to because of their jobs as it is about an office’s physical environment.

These stressors are often subtle and intrinsic to workplaces: junk food in the breakroom or sparse nutritious choices in the lunchroom; long-term sitting at a computer with a craned neck; a culture of social smoke breaks; or general workplace demands leading to stress and depression. These factors can be harmful to both the health of employees and the company itself.

“Work certainly affects health, but health also affects work,” says McLellan. “Unhealthy workers are more frequently disabled, absent and less productive, and they also use more health-care resources compared to their healthy colleagues.”

Promoting Health
Since people spend a great deal of time at work each week, McLellan says employers have an opportunity to positively affect their health with a supportive environment. An easy place to start is addressing the sedentary nature of most workers’ jobs. Providing an employee with a sitting-standing desk and periodic breaks to stretch and walk around can help workers incorporate some physical activity into their day.

Additionally, McLellan points to nutrition-conscious changes made at Dartmouth-Hitchcock as an example. The hospital added a variety of healthy options while simultaneously removing sugar sweetened beverages and deep fried food. Smaller companies without a lunchroom can still be mindful of what communal treats make it into the breakroom, perhaps substituting a dozen donuts with a fruit and veggie platter.

Yet, as much time as employees spend at work, McLellan says that employers should be particularly mindful of workers who go home to a less healthy community. “If you’re hiring people from an unhealthy community or a food desert, you might be at risk of having a lot of your health efforts undone.”

To combat this, McLellan says there’s been a trend of larger employers partnering with local nonprofits to improve community health. In the Monadnock region, Dartmouth-Hitchcock is working with Healthy Monadnock in Keene on initiatives that include local farmers markets and smoking cessation workshops.

In the past, McLellan says that employers have focused primarily on individual lifestyle improvements and health coaching to address occupational health problems. While these programs have their place, he says there’s more that can be done from an organizational perspective to help someone choose a healthier lifestyle.

“We won’t be successful with improving the health of our workforce if all we do is coach and scold people,” he says. “Employers and communities need to put together a broad swath of policies and programs to support employees’ health.”

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