Originally funded in 2006 with a $5 million grant, the center is a collaborative research-to-practice program led by Prof. Laura Punnett of Work Environment at UMass Lowell.
NIOSH, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has approved $4.5 million to support the center for the next five years.
“Our work has made a substantial difference to the health of workers in nursing homes, correctional facilities and other businesses across New England,” said Punnett. “We’re very excited that NIOSH has awarded this funding so that we can expand our research to uncover the root causes of how the workplace may be influencing negative health behaviors.”
Beyond "Wellness Programs"
The work of the center goes beyond “wellness programs” that many companies promote to their employees. Through focus groups, surveys and participatory team meetings, the research team reveals the employee perspective, which may be unknown to employers.
“Many employers are shocked to learn how their policies actually promote unhealthy behaviors,” said Punnett.
For example, a correctional facility wanted to know why its onsite fitness center was rarely used. By talking with the guards, researchers learned that the employer’s policy required workers who had just completed an eight-hour shift to work another shift if someone called in sick. This encouraged workers to leave the premises as quickly as possible, skipping the gym.
“You really can’t develop a solution if you don’t understand the problem,” said Punnett. “We’ve found that when employees are asked for their input about both problems and solutions, we get to the heart of the matter. This is what makes our research unique.”
The center is continuing to evaluate a program in a chain of more than 200 nursing homes that uses lift devices for residents to prevent back injuries and musculoskeletal disorders among aides and other caregivers. The team is measuring overall physical and mental health, employee retention, program costs and workers’ compensation claims.
Safe and Healthy@Work
Another project, the Safe and Healthy@Work educational program, gives employers, unions and health educators a set of online tools to uncover obstacles to health. The approach includes guidance for how to engage employees and examples of surveys.
“The bottom line is that if we listen to employees, solutions to healthier work places will be more comprehensive and appropriate to their lives,” said Punnett.
The indirect costs of poor health—including absenteeism, disability and reduced work output—may be several times higher than direct medical costs, according to the CDC. Productivity losses related to personal and family health problems cost U.S. employers $1,685 per employee per year, or $225.8 billion annually.
Other partners in the Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace include Genesis HealthCare Corporation, Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, Massachusetts Nurses Association, and the Massachusetts and Connecticut public health departments.