Niki Ellis | How work heals us


How work heals us

13 Sep 2016, Posted by Professor Niki Ellis in Inside OHS articles

According to Safe Work Australia the cost of work-related injury and illness was $61.8 billion in 2012-13, which is 4.4% of GDP. We know work harms us, but how does it heal us?

The Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine’s Realising the Health Benefits of Work statement says ‘worklessness’ is associated with increased death rates, including suicide, poorer physical and mental health and greater disability.

On the other hand, re-employment is associated with improvement to self-esteem, self-rated health, self-satisfaction and physical health. Although most policy statements now recognise that for recovery at work you need to return to good work.

At face value you might think that work improves our health by giving us a sense of purpose and relationships. We know a lot now about socio-organisational factors that are important for health in the workplace.

The UK Health and Safety Executive Stress Management Standards addresses six stressors: job demands, job control, support (encouragement and resources), relationships at work, role clarity and change management.

Is good, healing work simply the other side of the coin for these factors? You can make sense of that.

That means for healing work you would be looking for jobs that:

  • Demand not too little and not too much of you;
  • Give you discretion over the use of your skills in the job;
  • Provide you with adequate support in terms of resources, training and help;
  • Bring healthy relationships, and deal with conflict and unacceptable behaviours promptly;
  • Have a clear understanding of your role, how it contributes to the organisational achievements and where there are no conflicts with other roles; and
  • Exist in an environment where change is well managed and communicated.

But to me it doesn’t really answer the question how does good work heal you?


Health not merely the absence of disease: WHO

For that I turned to positive psychology.

Martin Seligman is usually considered the Father of this new discipline. In 1998, when he was the President of the American Psychology Association he proposed that the discipline of psychology needed to do more than address the ‘misery of mental illness’.

This echoes the World Health Organisation’s definition of health as physical, mental and social well-being, not just the absence of disease.

The discipline of health promotion has been trying to put flesh on the bones of that definition since the 1980s. The Ottawa Charter emerged from the first international conference on health promotion in 1986.

It stated that health promotion “creates living and working conditions that are safe, satisfying, stimulating and enjoyable”. Health promotion has always recognised that work plays an important role in health and wellbeing.

Sir Michael Marmot emphasised this in his leadership of the Social Determinants of Health Commission. In the Commission’s models the value of work, work that is fair as well as safe, is highlighted.

Something worth considering as we watch what has been going on with the 7 Eleven scandal.

On the ABC’s Q&A panel on poverty that aired on August 30, starring Sir Michael, it seemed to be a given that work was good for health and wellbeing.


Applying positive psychology to workplace health

Professor Anthony LaMontagne has proposed a model for mentally health workplaces which is based on the integrated approach.

By that I mean a holistic approach – considering the health of the worker as a whole – that combines occupational health and safety, workplace health promotion and human resources management.

I find this approach very useful and am using it to guide advice I give on mentally healthy workplaces.

There are three domains in this model: preventing harm; positive psychology and managing illness. La Montagne says it is early days in the application of positive psychology to workplace health, and I agree.

Seligman’s model of positive psychology, or as Keyes puts it what it takes to move people along the spectrum from mental illness to languishing to moderate mental health to flourishing, has seven elements:

  1. Relationships;
  2. Caring for others;
  3. Exercise;
  4. ‘Flow’ – tackling challenges confidently knowing you have the skills and resources to do so and then feeling the ‘flow’;
  5. Spiritual engagement and meaning;
  6. Knowledge of your strengths and virtues; and
  7. Positive mind set – optimism, mindfulness and gratitude.

Thinking about how work might contribute to these factors I can see that work is a great place to form relationships and performance management systems, when working properly, would help you to understand your strengths and virtues. Good work should be all about creating opportunities for ‘flow’, and be meaningful.


Optimistic nuns aiming for heaven

I was speaking on this recently at The Womens’ Club in Sydney. It was a fantastic audience. When we got to optimism I was telling them about some of the early work on optimism and pessimism that was done on nuns.

Nuns were considered a good study population as, in the 1930s, they lived in stable communities with very similar exposures, for most of their lives. The nuns were assessed for optimism and pessimism and then decades later work was done to analyse differences in longevity.

It turns out optimistic nuns live ten years longer than pessimistic nuns. Caroline Baum, who was interviewing me in front of this audience, pulled me up, “But why would nuns be pessimistic, they all believe that heaven is awaiting them?”. I channelled a pessimistic nun’s response, “Heaven isn’t what it used to be”.

In trying to understand the healing powers of work, can the conceptual frameworks from the HSE stress management standards and the positive psychology approach be reconciled? Perhaps the very old definition of ergonomics helps here; our aim is to match work to man and each man to his job.


First published in Thomson Reuters Inside OHS, 12 September 2016

Inside OHS Editor: Stephanie D’Souza; (02) 8587 7684; Stephanie.D’