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With wellness programs, employers are just passing the buck, unions say

Work has profound implications on health. Employees are facing unprecedented levels of workplace stress, increasing workloads and a myriad of other health and safety hazards.

Why, then, are unions cautioning their members about programs that claim to improve health?

The crux of unions’ concern is these programs tend to put the spotlight on individual workers and their “unhealthy” lifestyles, while ignoring workplace factors that cause ill health. It’s all well and good to be told to eat healthy foods, exercise, stop smoking, and relax. But if work and its associated hazards and working conditions are responsible for ill health, wellness programs won’t offer much help.

Some organizations, either by chance or design, use wellness programs to supplant meaningful occupational health and safety programs. In effect, wellness programs are shifting the blame for unhealthy workplaces away from the organization and onto workers, and may take attention and resources away from preventing the workplace hazards which make workers unhealthy.

Unions have other concerns about wellness programs. Among them:

•Candidates are asked to share personal confidential information that focuses on nutrition, tobacco, alcohol and drug use, level of physical activity, sexual preferences and practices, social and behavioural issues and personal resources. This level of employer interest in workers’ individual health and lifestyle is intrusive.

•How confidential is the information collected?

•Employer reprisals or intimidation against those not willing to participate in the programs. Potential for co-worker reprisals where employers set up incentives or contests between worker groups.

Canadian occupational health and safety laws place responsibility on employers to provide safe and healthy working conditions. Workers have the right be protected from harm, the right to refuse unsafe work, the right to know about workplace hazards and the right to participate in occupational health and safety decisions. The link between wellness and occupational health and safety may not be as clear.

Canadian workplaces are neither safe nor healthy. A recent study by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards Canada revealed that Canada has one of the worst occupational health and safety records of the industrialized world. The odds of being killed at work in Canada are greater than any of the 16 OECD countries except Italy.

What’s more, occupational disease rates are not decreasing in any meaningful way. Some injuries, such as soft tissue diseases, are in fact on the rise.

Unions cannot support wellness programs without a real commitment to invest in the prevention of workplace hazards. As well, there are few peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate wellness programs improve an organization’s health and safety performance.

Are there alternatives? Absolutely. Most unions spend a great deal of time campaigning for safer workplaces. Employers, helped by joint health and safety committees, can start to look for hazards or unwell areas of the workplace, and not just workers’ lifestyles.

In the end, what workers need from employers is a commitment to make workplaces healthier by eliminating stress, ergonomics hazards, toxins and other dangers. Workplace wellness and not individual wellness should be the top priority program for employers. We need to centre on healthy work, as well as healthy workers.

Anthony Pizzino is national director of the health and safety branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. He may be reached at (613) 237-1590 or [email protected].

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