23 Mar, 2016 Last updated: 29 Mar, 2016

Opinion piece by VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter
Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life, so said Confucius.

Given that the average person spends up to a third of their day at work, Confucius may well have been on to something.

While loving your job can no doubt help make it easier to get up when the alarm goes off every morning, human beings need more than that to keep us happy and healthy.

Our jobs can contribute to illness and can also be linked to poor health decisions such as smoking, unhealthy eating and lack of exercise. Our place of work also causes and exacerbates some mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

While the average full time worker spends about a third of their day at work, with the global trend of longer working hours, many are working above and beyond the traditional eight hour work day.

In addition to this, modern technology means even when we do clock off from the workplace, we’re often checking emails or taking after hours calls.

It makes sense then, that workplaces have an important role to play in enhancing and protecting the health of their staff.

New VicHealth research published today shows that workplaces have a responsibility to promote health and this takes enormous commitment. The science tells us it will be slow but the rewards are worthwhile.

Our four-year Creating Healthy Workplaces Program funded large-scale trials in Victorian workplaces to develop and test solutions for promoting healthy living and preventing disease.

The projects ran in a range of workplaces and focused on the best ways to tackle alcohol-related harm, prolonged sitting, work stress and violence against women.

The Y Respect Gender project, in partnership with the YMCA aimed to address the underlying culture that leads to gender inequalities. It also aimed to boost the number of women in leadership positions at the YMCA. 

The project reached about 8000 YMCA staff and volunteers around Victoria through staff training, education and information, reviews of practices, policies and procedures, internal communications and marketing and events to promote equality and raise awareness about violence against women.

The project sparked culture change across the organisation and a greater readiness to talk about gender equality, gender stereotyping and violence against women. It also saw an increase in women in leadership positions, demonstrating how workplaces can help stop violence before it starts by building equal and respectful relationships between men and women in the workplace.

Another project, designed to reduce alcohol-related harm, targeted the manufacturing industry to develop new approaches to reducing drinking in the workplace via information sessions, training programs, resource guides for drug and alcohol support and the development of a health, safety and wellbeing package. 

The project successfully reduced risky drinking and the number of employees coming to work with a hangover. It also improved alcohol-related attitudes, employee awareness of the workplace alcohol policy and use of alcohol-related health and wellbeing services.

Projects targeting work stress with Victoria Police and Eastern Access Community Health (EACH) Social and Community Health found that improvements in the management and leadership competencies were achieved while the world-first Stand Up Victoria introduced sit-to-stand work stations, resulting in significant reductions in prolonged sitting, which we know is a risk factor for chronic disease even in people who meet or exceed daily exercise guidelines.

The Creating Healthy Workplaces projects weren’t without their challenges and the final report summaries provide succinct learnings about how difficult this work is, with some pointers towards how to do this work better next time. 

Undeniably, these projects collectively demonstrate how workplaces can have significant change on behaviours and attitudes and stimulate change to promote good health, prevent disease, decrease absenteeism, improve safety and keep people out of the hospital system.

Importantly, the changes achievable from workplace interventions aren’t just physical ones. Workplaces have an important role to play around cultural change and in promoting and enhancing the mental wellbeing of their employees.

With people spending so much of their time at work, employers are in a unique position to reach a large amount of the population who may not otherwise respond to health messages, may not visit doctors or may not have time to make lasting change to their health choices outside of work.

These four reports are must-reads for all employers and policy makers; I challenge every employer reading this to consider how similar approaches could be applied to their own workplace.

Whether it’s addressing heavy workloads, building leadership, providing staff training, investing in sit-to-stand desks, encouraging healthy eating or educating staff about the harms of smoking, drug use and excessive alcohol consumption, the potential to promote good health and prevent disease in the workplace is enormous and invaluable.

Small changes can make a big difference.

Jerril Rechter is CEO of VicHealth