One risk to NZ workers' health stands out as workplaces urged to focus wellbeing

Humans are highly integrated with our environment and anytime a workplace works against human biology, the negative ...
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Humans are highly integrated with our environment and anytime a workplace works against human biology, the negative impacts will build over time.

Traditionally, health and wellness have been seen as something distinct from health and safety.

But with workplaces evolving and the new health and safety legislation coming into effect, the importance of wellness is on par with safety.

Under the new Health and Safety at Work Act, "health" is defined to include both physical and mental health, although "wellness" is not defined or specifically mentioned.

Synergy Health specialises in providing workplace wellness programmes, and health researcher and educator Jamie Scott says one of largest health risks in workplaces is a lack of sleep.

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This is largely because insufficient sleep impairs focus and reaction time.

Imagine the potential risks when someone is operating heavy machinery while under-slept, disengaged and unfocused, he says.

"But add to this a poor diet and low physical activity levels, and you have a recipe for disaster."

Humans are highly integrated with our environment, including the one we spend more time in than any other - the workplace - and anytime a workplace works against human biology, the negative impacts will build over time.

Poorly structured shift work can lead to severe circadian rhythm disruption and sleep deficits, which can then lead to reduced tolerance and emotional ability, and emotional reactiveness can foster an undercurrent of mistrust, Scott says.

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Conversely, there are case studies where workplaces that prioritise wellness have been able to cut down their workday from eight to six hours without losing productivity.

Synergy Health owner Brad Norris says he has experienced a notable increase in clients since the new health and safety legislation was passed and organisations were starting to understand the benefits of being proactive about employee health and wellbeing.

But workplaces in general needed to get better at providing a more holistic approach to employee health and wellbeing.

"Our modern work environments, which includes everything from the type of food that is readily available, to how much movement is encouraged, to the amount of bright natural light available, to the types and number of sleep disruptors we face across the day, can be mismatched to the basic needs of human beings as a biological system," he says.

"Put an animal in a cage, feed it highly processed food, stress it out, interfere with its sleep, sun, and socialisation needs, and I don't think making it stand up a bit more frequently in the cage is really the first issue to address."

Duncan Cotterill employment and health and safety specialist Kirsty McDonald says as well as employers ensuring they have effective health and safety policies and procedures, they should also take a broader approach to make sure wellness is also a focus.

This could include implementing workplace sports teams, corporate sponsored fitness events, offering gym subsidies, offering annual mental health checks, subsidising health insurance, providing flu jabs, and counselling services.

Frequent catch-ups with staff may also help create a culture where staff feel comfortable raising concerns.

McDonald says the new legislation is intended to take a more proactive approach than its predecessor.

"As many will already know, the legislative changes predominantly came about as a result of the Pike River tragedy, which uncovered a number of shortcomings in the current health and safety legislation and the cultural attitude of many New Zealand workplaces towards health and safety."

The new act is still mostly focused on physical safety but guidelines on issues like bullying have been released and there were likely to be more guidelines released on preventing mental health issues, McDonald says.

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