Rethinking occupational wellness

I recently read a story on social media about a bank worker who committed suicide. The story got me disturbed. I was not too concerned about the reason behind his action because of the many versions to the story. I examined the story from the position of occupational wellness.

I may think in this direction perhaps because of my profession but we have always advocated that employees’ wellness must be fully integrated into the overlapping wheels of good business processes. We do not currently have that in most organisations in Nigeria. Even when the global economic hardship places much pressure on everyone, we all feel the huge negative effects but no one seems to talk about it. We are all mute, mutually frustrated and productivity suffers leading to more round of pressure on employees to scale up. This has been the cycle.

The World Health Organisation’s definition of wellness indicates that, “It is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely absence of disease or infirmity.” Examining workplace wellness in this context, one will realise that an employee can be present at work with no disease or illness and yet may not be well when weighed in on health balances. The question is, what are we doing wrongly?

In the new global workplace we find ourselves, there is a huge temptation to place profit above the health of employees. In most organisations, profit is the only tone and cultural body language and not about employees’ wellness.

Occupational health has evolved beyond merely looking at accident prevention and physical harm to employees but also employees who are in distress and suffering silently. This class of harm is the emotional harm suffered by employees in the course of performing their duties. It includes psychosocial issues such as burnouts, stress, work overload, work-family balance, fatigue, workplace harassment and a number of other associated non-tangible issues.

For example, stress is not like an open injury that can be seen and dressed; burnout is not like tumour that can be opened and removed. It is not like an open wound that can be plastered but its effect on workers is far-reaching.

Work-related emotional harm is a very complex condition that must be systematically addressed from the root. Workplace wellness studies have recommended employees’ engagement as a useful tool in giving employees the psychological support in delivering organisational expectations. This is as simple as doing nothing, but because the management process has not been clearly defined in our culture, it has become so deficient in our corporate DNA and both the employees and employers suffer for it. Absence of employees’ engagement could make organisations lose much without knowing. Everyone moves on as if all is well. This is where occupational health with human resources has become very imperative. We all must remember that management is about people, not just things.

Managers need to understand that employees are people with emotions. If there is something happening in their personal lives, they will have limited capacity to deal with issues at work. Most of the cases bordering on under-performance by employees have nothing to do with work. They are traceable to their homes. Employees’ homes and families have become an integral part of their wellness.

When good workers have challenges, managers and management need to support and pull them through.

We preach team spirit but when things go wrong, we are so quick to sacrifice our team member without looking at how certain things negatively impact on them. If managers learn to carry along employees when they most need it, they become a stronger community and are empowered in unimaginable ways.

A re-invigorated employee is an organisation’s most powerful force; he or she becomes a better version automatically. Managers need to understand that they are managing people and every act of theirs has a great influence on emotions.

Most times, employees’ burnout without anyone noticing; a most versatile employee may recline to the point that he is hardly seen. Managers should be concerned and investigate what such employee is experiencing. Such an employee will need mutual support to be up again and we should remember that employees spend an average of seven hours in the office.

The work environment is a great influence on employees’ overall performance. The Employees Assistance Programme is also lacking in most organisations. Who does the employee talk to when he is bereaved? Are there debriefing processes? Are there provisions for counsellors or psychologists within or outside the organisations? Is there a return-to-work policy and processes after illness or workers just migrate from hospital bed to the office? Have we created a work environment that creates room for trust so that workers can open up to counsellors and mental health professionals?

There are new and emerging workplace diseases and conditions lately and they are all offshoot of the workplace conditions. Globally, ageing workforce is fast becoming an issue; people are also going into early retirement because their health conditions would not allow them reach the retirement age. Most of these issues are linked to workplace conditions.

What is happening now in work places is not idealism of suicide, it is suicide in the real sense of it. When we drive employees far beyond what they can handle, we will have complex issues to handle.

We should relax the work environment with the confidentcethat an employee who is not giving his or her best today, could become a super performer tomorrow.


  • Iden is an occupational health and safety expert.