Almost half of all American workers are employed by a small business. Working hard to stay afloat, these small businesses often have fewer resources for employee health and safety. They typically cannot afford robust benefits like employee assistance programs (EAPs), wellness vendors, or other health and safety programs to offer their employees. They also often lack the time, personnel, and expertise to prioritize health and safety. For this reason, researchers at the Center for Health, Work & Environment launched the Small+Safe+Well (SSWell) Study in 2017.
The SSWell Study is an ongoing Total Worker Health® intervention study of small businesses (fewer than 500 employees) in the state of Colorado with the purpose of understanding how small businesses support the safety and health of their employees and how these businesses can improve their culture of safety and health.
After earning my master’s in public health, I began working at the Center for Health, Work & Environment and quickly developed a passion for occupational safety and health. Workers spend so much of their lives on the job and give so much to their employers. Their safety and health should not suffer for the sake of their job. Rather, the workplace should be used as a space to promote worker health, safety, and well-being. I take this perspective and understanding in my role as study coordinator for the SSWell Study.
Our research team recently published a paper, "Small Business Employees’ Perceptions of Leadership Are Associated With Safety and Health Climates and Their Own Behaviors,
" in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Leading the study, I used data from the SSWell Study consisting of 53 small businesses representing 1,271 employees. We found that employee perceptions of how much their leaders care about safety and health are significantly related to the safety and health climate of their organization. Safety and health climates refer to shared employee perceptions of how their organization values safety or health. According to our study, employee perceptions of how much their leaders care about safety and health not only informs the safety and health climates, but is also associated with employee behavior. Those individuals that expressed more positive perceptions of leadership were more likely to participate in both health and safety activities, such as attending worksite wellness meetings or becoming a member of the safety committee. To date, this is the first study addressing the impact of leadership on safety and health climates among small businesses
Even in smaller workplaces with fewer resources, the impact leaders have on the atmosphere of an organization is palpable. Leaders set the tone for their workplace and employees take cues from their supervisors and leadership about what is appropriate and expected behavior. For example, if a worker sees their boss exercising or taking a break away from their desk over the lunch hour, they may feel more empowered to do the same. Adversely, leaders can discourage workers from making safe and healthy choices through their actions. For example, an employee may be more likely to take short cuts with respect to safety if they feel pressured to complete a task or deliver a product by a certain time. A leader’s role is essential in creating positive safety and health climates for their organization.
The findings from the SSWell Study should serve as an encouragement to small business leaders. Even if they have limited resources to devote to safety and health programs, they can still improve the health and safety culture of their organizations. Through demonstration and evident support of health and safety programs and policies, employees will see that their safety and health are valued by supervisors and the organization as a whole. These results are among many to come from the SSWell Study. Our research team will continue exploring the longitudinal impact of TWH intervention, including leadership training on improving safety and health climates and employee behavior with respect to safety and health.
Written by Erin Shore, MPH, Professional Research Assistant at the Center for Health, Work & Environment based at the Colorado School of Public Health. Erin is currently applying for PhD programs in epidemiology.