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How does your organisation impact on work-related health?

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HealthMaria Karanika-Murray and George Michaelides discuss how organisational culture and policies affect the quality of working life and the work-related health and wellbeing of your workforce.


What determines work-related health?

Research and theory has typically placed emphasis on the individual and their job. We have good knowledge about how the quality of working life impacts on employee health, wellbeing, job satisfaction, sickness absence, and musculoskeletal disorders. Largely to blame are demanding roles, limited opportunity for control, unsupportive relationships with colleagues and managers, little scope for variety or autonomy, and poor balance between work and family life. For example, the Health and Safety Executive Management Standards for work-related stress cover demands, control, support, relationships, role and change as the primary causes of stress at work. As a result, a substantial body of research and related guidance over the last year has informed practice, helped to manage work-related health effectively, and produced considerable benefits for Britain’s working population.

The problem of organisational context

However, there is some research to show that the broader context and organisational level characteristics (e.g. organisational culture, workgroup characteristics, organisational policies and structures) are also partly responsible for work-related ill-health. It is well known that organisational health management efforts are often not as successful as might be anticipated. With the probability of failure of any organisational intervention at an estimated 50%, it costs considerable time, effort and money. The reason for such failures may be that important wider contextual factors are often ignored.

“It is well known that organisational health management efforts are often not as successful as might be anticipated.”

For example, safety experts have made it clear that the organisational safety climate impact on motivation and compliance with safety initiatives, which in turn, impacts on individuals’ safety behaviour. Likewise, we know that organisational change efforts, such as downsizing, can affect work-related health. Similarly, there is some evidence to show that transformational leadership style, a positive team spirit, and supervisory support can improve performance, wellbeing, and job satisfaction and reduce absenteeism. We also know that employees in smaller organisations tend to have lower absence rates and higher commitment.

Overall, we know that what happens in the broader organisational context can change the organisation of work and social relationships. In turn, this can lead to work and health-related behaviours. Consequently, this can lead to changes in physical health and psychological wellbeing. Organisational, group, job, and individual characteristics jointly determine work-related health and behaviour.

However, this knowledge is far from complete and has not been translated into practical guidance. We do need to understand this interplay and the bigger picture better, in order to successfully manage health at work.

What can HR professionals do?

There is a great deal that HR professionals can do in ensuring the health and wellbeing of their staff, and ultimately reducing absence and increasing job satisfaction. It is important to take into account the organisational context in any health management efforts. Based on what we already know and what accumulated experience tells us, some important points can be raised.

It is important that employees are aware of the organisation’s processes and structures so that they can draw on these resources to deal with work demands. This includes, for example, what flexible work arrangements exist, and what the organisation’s family-friendly policies are. In addition, training managers to develop behaviours which explicitly show appreciation for people’s work, active support, motivation, and fairness can be important for changing employee attitudes and work behaviour.

Furthermore, when carrying out a risk assessment, it is essential to interpret findings in light of the broader context. For example, a high number of redundancies in a particular department over the previous months before the risk assessment may have affected the reporting of motivation and job satisfaction of people working in that department. If different sites seem to have different risk profiles, it is important to examine how these sites may differ and how these differences may have affected the risk assessment findings.

Finally, visible top management commitment and support is one of the most important factors for the success and sustainability of health management actions and interventions. Similarly, it is important to cultivate a positive and supportive team spirit and high morale. This can lead to motivation and compliance with health management efforts, as well as to lower absenteeism.

New research

A new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council was launched recently at Nottingham Trent University. Over the next two and a half years the researchers will examine the relationships between the organisational context and quality of working life and, ultimately, work-related health and wellbeing. This will be done in a comprehensive way, looking at how these relationships change over time. The study will help to shape practice for the effective management of work-related health.

“Visible top management commitment and support is one of the most important factors for the success and sustainability of health management actions and interventions.”

More definite answers on what determines work-related health will help to (i) develop tailored and sustainable interventions to manage occupational health and organisational change, (ii) identify interventions that can benefit a larger number of employees, and (iii) monitor risk factors more effectively. It will also help risk management to truly move towards broader programmes which integrate individual and organisational causes of work health. Practical guidance for those responsible for health and safety in organisations will also be developed.

Inviting participation

The study will require access to a large number of organisations. Over the next three months the project team will start recruiting organisations (small to large), covering preferably knowledge-based jobs in the service sector. Participating organisations will be able to benchmark their health performance, show proactivity in work-related health matters, and help to develop needed knowledge on the management of health and wellbeing. The findings will be disseminated to organisations and stakeholders at a conference at the end of the study.


Dr Maria Karanika-Murray and Dr George Michaelides are from the School of Social Sciences at Nottingham Trent University, and are part of the project team for the above study. They have extensive research experience in the area, with private organisations, European and governmental bodies. The work is supported by the Economic and Social Research Council’s First Grant Scheme (grant reference number RES-061-25-0344). They can be contacted on +44 (0)115 8482425 or via [email protected] and [email protected]

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