Worker safety. Health. Wellbeing.
We often hear about those topics and wonder how they can be improved.
But what if work hours, workload and interactions with coworkers and managers are added to the mix, blending all these topics—and more—to create a safer and healthier work experience?
A large and growing transdisciplinary group of professionals, including Dr. Chris Cunningham, a Guerry Professor and UC Foundation Professor of Psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is actively reconsidering the way work is designed and experienced.
Cunningham was a steering committee member for a recently initiated professional association, the Society for Total Worker Health, which prioritizes providing all employees with a safe working environment.
The society recently held its International Symposium to Advance Total Worker Health at the National Institutes of Health headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, focusing on advancing the Total Worker Health concept and exploring opportunities to create safer and healthier workplaces.
“There’s a lot of buy-in, a lot of commitment from very senior federal officials pushing this forward,” Cunningham said. He noted the list of participants in the opening keynotes included the directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). One of the closing keynote speakers was U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
Participants included researchers and practitioners from allied occupational health fields, such as public health, occupational medicine, industrial hygiene and industrial-organizational (I-O) and occupational health psychology.
“There were a lot of good opportunities to meet with some of the big stakeholders in that space,” Cunningham said.
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Cunningham, director of the UTC I-O Psychology graduate program, said he’s been involved in reimagining total worker health for almost 20 years.
I-O psychologists focus on using psychology in a work setting to help fit the right people to the right jobs, keep them safe, train them properly and ensure they’re performing well, he said. At the same time, they help companies manage their employees better and improve the overall work environment and experience for workers.
I-O psychologists are one component of the Total Worker Health concept.
“Transdisciplinary means all-inclusive, all in, and I think this conference underscored the need for that,” Cunningham said. “You have people that—through no fault of their own because of how training programs are set up—tend to have a siloed way of thinking and approaching these problems.
“This conference was focused on trying to facilitate that transdisciplinary collaboration to get psychologists to work with public health specialists, to work with epidemiologists, to work with industrial hygienists, to work with occupational medicine specialists. Everybody who could touch that challenge of health has to be involved in solving some of these problems.”
Cunningham said there’s not a single worker health safety or wellbeing issue that can be resolved from one perspective. He cited worker safety in a manufacturing plant as an example.
“A lot of manufacturing plants have rigid plexiglass or metal safety barriers in place, they have safety zones painted on the floor and there’s probably signage saying, ‘Wear your protective equipment,’” he said, “but you’ll notice that people are walking around without their safety equipment, they’re bending around protective areas and they’re putting their hands in places that you can tell are dangerous.
“So the question always arises: ‘Why aren’t you following the safety protocols?’ As soon as you start asking questions about how and why with respect to people’s behavior, you’re talking about psychology.”
Cunningham then asked a series of rhetorical questions. How are those workers being trained? How are they being rewarded and incentivized? What are the social norms that are shaping and guiding their behavior?
“In a lot of these production facilities, people are paid by piece rate,” he said, “and if they’re paid to produce quickly, they’re going to find workarounds. Those workarounds are going to be dangerous because now they’re trying to get around those safety and protective barriers that were put in place—and they’re just slowing them down.
“The idea of a transdisciplinary approach is to say, ‘OK, we have this challenge. What would a psychologist say in response? What would an industrial hygienist offer? How would an environmental specialist tackle this? What would an occupational medicine person bring to the table?’ The idea, hope and vision is that we get a bunch of these different perspectives and areas of expertise in the same room and we can come up with real solutions for many of these thorny problems.”
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Symposium attendees were treated to three separate panel discussions that included Cunningham: the current Great Resignation phenomenon; the importance of understanding how work is organized when addressing worker health, safety and wellbeing; and the effects of the recent COVID pandemic on worker mental health.
“Most of my colleagues—including everybody I presented with at this conference—belong to an R1 top research institute,” he said. “But the role that I play is helping to translate that research into actual practice. I have the luxury of teaching nearly 40 master’s degree holders every year—and they go on to become HR directors, consultants, training managers, selection specialists, anything you think of that applies an I-O degree.”
Being in the classroom and working in the field has its advantages. For example, it enabled him to collaborate on a textbook with UTC Associate Professor Kristen Black published last year, “Essentials of Occupational Health Psychology,” which was recently selected as one of Doody’s Core Titles in the Health Sciences for 2022.
The textbook has created a lot of visibility for the UTC I-O program and has extended to additional opportunities.
“Right now, Dr. Black and I are working on an engagement with the CDC directly; we’re building a training to help public health leaders avoid and prevent burnout,” Cunningham said. “To have that opportunity is an incredible honor and a real testament to the growing recognition that we have to get better at providing tangible guidance that managers and employees can put into practice.”
Cunningham, who just completed a two-year term as the president of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology, has been invited to speak and consult on issues pertaining to the psychology of worker health by numerous notable groups and organizations—including the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the American Industrial Hygiene Association, the occupational health team for NASA and the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General.
Moving forward, a major theme in Cunningham’s work is the opportunity to rethink how work is structured.
“The last time work was seriously redesigned was probably after World War II,” he said, “and maybe a little bit when the personal computer entered into the equation. Aside from that, the modality of working hasn’t dramatically changed.”
He said the hard reset imposed upon the world by COVID-19 made people seriously question those modalities, leading people to stop and ask, “Where’s the optimal environment? What is an appropriate workload? What is an appropriate work schedule? What are appropriate staffing levels?
“These are supercritical questions that many industries have not figured out yet,” Cunningham said. “We have this opportunity now to ask, answer and address those questions, and that’s what Total Worker Health is all about.”