Healthy at work: "Occupational health management is a win-win situation"

Interview with Dr. Elke Ahlers, Research Unit "Quality of Work" at the Institute of Economic and Social Research (WSI), Hans Böckler Foundation


Exercising, keeping fit, staying healthy as you age – modern lifestyle goals pursued by many. Another buzzword related to this lifestyle is work-life balance. But how can you maintain this balance if your job makes it impossible to stay healthy? If stress and physical as well as emotional distress cripple employees? Finding a balance and compensate for these aspects in your leisure time is often barely possible.

This is where occupational health management comes in. Its goal is to protect all employees and ultimately keep a company "healthy". However, one look at companies reveals that it is often not being implemented. This is bad for all parties involved. MEDICA spoke with Dr. Elke Ahlers and found out why this is the case and how things can be changed.

Photo: Smiling woman with short hair and jacket; Copyright: Foto Schmidt

Dr. Elke Ahlers; © Foto Schmidt

Dr. Ahlers, occupational health management is a buzzword known by many in senior management. But do companies actually put it into practice?

Elke Ahlers: Yes and no. More and more companies tout they offer occupational health management. However, whether it actually truly has an impact on employees and whether it is effective is hard to say. Unfortunately, we are also noticing that the measures that are being offered are often just a smoke-screen. Many companies only offer an annual Health Day where employees can check their blood pressure or get tips on healthy eating habits. Yet that is not the goal of well implemented occupational health management.

It actually includes health promotion as well as safety and health in the workplace. All companies are legally obligated to protect employees against health hazards. This is stipulated by the German Occupational Safety and Health Act. Occupational safety and health aims at prevention, where employees have access to targeted programs to keep them healthy. Ideally, the employees are included in discussions on how workplace conditions can be improved. However, the latter can rarely be seen in companies.

Employers like to shift this responsibility on to their employees by referring to their time off as relaxation time. The fact that employees suffer because too much work is done by too few people, is often relegated to the back burner. How can companies be made aware of their responsibility to pitch in so that their employees stay healthy?

Ahlers: This would be quite easy to do because there is a legal obligation based on Article 5 of the German Occupational Safety and Health Act. It states that every employer is legally obligated to conduct integrated risk assessments for every workplace. This also includes psychological work-related stress such as continuous increased work and time pressure. That is to say, the employer or authorized health protection officers need to talk with employees or rather visit them at their workplace and determine the factors that put a strain on the employees in their work and how these working conditions can be improved. Yet in actuality, not many employers, barely 24 percent of them truly implement this law. That’s the dilemma. Here you have a great law that is often circumvented in reality.

Photo: A blond woman in the foreground. In the background, two dark-haired women (blurred) are talking about her; Copyright: Krautberger

Not many people like to admit that their psyche no longer plays along. Too many still must fear a stigma, that they are not strong enough for the job; & Copy Krautberger

Are there actual consequences if the law is being circumvented?

Ahlers: Yes, if things would actually be detected. However, the implementation of the law is barely being enforced. Oftentimes, the responsible labor protection agencies also don’t have enough available manpower for monitoring. That’s how companies avoid sanctions they would normally receive.

What can employees do to ensure occupational health management is retroactively integrated into their company?

Ahlers: For example, the work council can be more aggressive in criticizing the fact that the company is not doing enough as it relates to work and health and that the binding instructions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Social Code are not being observed. That happens for instance if employees are continuously working under high time constraints and pressure to perform. If work hours and overtime are getting out of hand, you can contact the regulatory agencies and request a review. Collective bargaining agreements pertaining to integrated safety and occupational health are also suited to jump start an improvement in working conditions. To accomplish this, work councils and employers get together to negotiate integrated occupational health management measures.

Where can a company that is willing to introduce occupational health management obtain information?

Ahlers: Companies can contact the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA), for example, the accident insurance companies, the previously mentioned regulatory agencies, trade unions or health insurance companies. Several institutions dedicate their efforts to this subject and offer their assistance.

Is occupational health management an important issue for all companies or does it tend to exclude smaller companies?

Ahlers: Size definitely plays a role. The bigger a company, the more likely it implements occupational health management measures and conducts occupational safety and health risk assessments. Oftentimes, occupational health management is still in the fledgling stages in smaller companies. They frequently lack the financial means or don’t have sufficient knowledge or support. Nevertheless, this should still be an issue that concerns everyone. However, even large companies often advertise the company’s own corporate health programs in glossy brochures – but if you take a closer look, little is done in reality to reduce work-related mental stress of employees.

Maybe that is also because hardly anyone dares to tell his/her employer that they are affected by stress.

Ahlers: As a matter of fact, the concepts and terms should be changed because the crux of the matter is actually stressful working conditions. This subsequently avoids the notion of "psychological stress", which clearly represents an obstacle for many. You subsequently think less of psychological issues and rather of stressful working conditions. In doing so, employees are able to talk about harmful work organization without fear. This is about external factors such as the phone that rings incessantly or that social cohesion suffers from the constant pressures at work. However, both aspects can result in health issues.

Photo: A man beats his hands over his head. To the left and to the right of him, one can see hands that give him things or show the clock; Copyright: Sidelnikov

To complain about physical work and to demand changes is often easier than to talk about psychic "weaknesses". But no one can constantly work under time pressure or when intermittent interruptions occur; & Copy; Sidelnikov

The last point you mentioned earlier – "too much to do, too little time" – especially applies to the health sector. Are things particularly bad in this area?

Ahlers: Yes, you might say that. We have done an industry analysis on the subject of work intensification. The health sector has one of the highest levels. Something needs to urgently be done in this area. Early initiatives, such as collective bargaining agreements that address workload capacity calculation at the Charité in Berlin, for example, are a welcome step in the right direction.

Does the introduction and continuation of occupational health management measures come at a high cost for companies? Or why are so many companies "so hesitant" to come onboard?

Ahlers: Indeed, employers often argue that occupational health management is too expensive. This might be the case because these measures cost money of course. However, they are rarely as costly as it first seems. After all, this is basically a question of companies engaging more actively with their employees and inquire about troubling work-related stress. The stakeholders should enter into a conversation where it becomes natural to discuss stressful working conditions and options for improvements. You don’t need expensive experts or intricate equipment for this – good communication and participation is the key to success in this case. What’s more, you must also keep in mind that occupational health management is a win-win situation. On the one hand, it improves employee health, while it also significantly reduces injury and illness rates in a company on the other.

Photo: Simone Ernst; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

The interview was conducted by Simone Ernst and translated by Elena O'Meara.