How has the pandemic changed our working life and how can adequate lighting help as we navigate our way through this global challenge? We spoke to BSI’s Kate Field about how occupational health and safety can unlock the benefits of a human-centered organization.

Being left in the dark, whether literally or figuratively, is never going to rank highly on anyone’s list of priorities. And yet that’s how many of us have felt over the past year as we’ve struggled through the plethora of challenges brought about by COVID-19: uncertainties were rife and led in many ways to the degradation of both mental and physical health. Some were furloughed, leading to financial strains and worries. Others, such as those in the construction industry for example, continued to work – meaning they then faced not only their ‘normal’ daily workplace concerns of safety and adequate PPE, but had coronavirus precautions added into the mix.

People are the foundation of any organization: without your employees, nothing gets done. Without your partners in the supply chain, things grind to a halt. Without your clients, there is simply no business. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced organizations to reprioritize a human centred approach.

Indeed, being ‘human’ is perhaps one of the most positive things that the pandemic has brought us. For those of us who have been working from home – our managers have met our kids, cats, dogs, and in turn we have seen our managers’ range of rock t-shirts (who knew?), as well as meeting their kids, cats, and dogs.

There has also been a greater awareness of psychological health and the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having. With huge swathes of the workforce switching to a work from home model and restrictions limiting our time outdoors, our access to natural light has been significantly reduced in the past year, exacerbating the strain already being placed on our mental health.

“indeed, being ‘human’ is perhaps one of the most positive things that the pandemic has brought us”

Psychological health and well-being has long been a major issue in the workplace, with stress, burnout, anxiety and depression costing economies billions and resulting in high levels of long-term sickness absence and consequent disruption. It is an area of Occupational Health and Safety management which many organizations feel inadequately equipped to deal with.

With a return to the office almost upon us, it is likely that our exposure to natural light will further decrease, and employers and organizations need to consider how this will impact the mental health and well-being of employees. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought psychological health and well-being to the forefront of leaders’ attention in a way that has simply not happened before. There is an increasing understanding that no matter the size or shape of their organization, they are likely to be facing physical and mental health issues now and well into the future. And critically, unless they are managed effectively, they will have serious implications for those who are already struggling to deal with the general uncertainty, economic disruption and changing ways of working that the pandemic has brought.

So, what does well-being at work mean? And how can lighting help?

Lighting and workplace well-being

Well-being in the workplace has different meanings across organizations and countries which may be influenced by complex cultural and societal beliefs, attitudes, constraints and regulatory and social systems. The International Labour Organization (ILO) states that: “Workplace well-being relates to all aspects of working life, from the quality and safety of the physical environment.”1 This includes the type of lighting we are being exposed to for the majority of our day. In the winter, when our access to natural light is reduced this can have a significant impact on mental health and well-being with individuals suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD causes sufferers to experience a low mood or depression during the winter months when natural light is at its lowest. In these times, ensuring lighting in workplaces and offices is supporting our bodies to feel alert and awake during the day is key. Both natural and artificial blue light boosts alertness and mental sharpness which during our working day can help us feel productive and effective, but too much of it can keep you awake at night and prevent you from getting a restful night sleep so it should be used with caution. LED lighting and fluorescent bulbs give off more blue light than incandescent bulbs and are therefore more suited in workplaces and offices during the working day when employees may find it difficult accessing natural light.

Lighting an environment adequately is a complex task and lighting to support the specific tasks that will be undertaken in a space is important. Employers can take simple steps to ensure lighting is supporting a positive and productive space.

“providing employees with the access to control their own lighting while they work can improve job satisfaction and decrease the experience of stress”

For example, providing employees with the access to control their own lighting while they work can improve job satisfaction and decrease the experience of stress. This is especially important in spaces where employees are doing detailed tasks which require more focus.

Reducing glare from external sources is another issue which in a workspace can cause a negative impact on well-being and productivity. Using blinds, correcting the angle of light sources, installing glare filters and up-lighting can work to mitigate this.

Generally, lighting is designed when the workplace is empty, so considering shadows, glare and how people use the space, and how they will interact with various light options is essential to ensuring a comfortable working environment.

It is also important to consider the needs of different groups of workers. For instance, many workers – still buzzing from the jubilations of Eid – will have just finished observing Ramadan. During which time, the importance of adequate lighting, in particular natural lighting, will have become even more important. With no food or drink to pass the observers lips during sunlight hours, fasting can understandably result in trouble concentrating, light-headedness and fatigue. All of this of course being compounded by waking for suhoor, the plentiful meal consumed before dawn, ahead of the day’s fasting. This interruption of the circadian rhythm alone can play havoc with concentration and fatigue, not to mention the compound effects of dehydration and hunger throughout the day. When working in an environment fraught, at the best of times, with potential hazards, a lack of concentration is not recommended in combination with the Region’s hot sun. As solace, however, good workplace lighting will help with alertness and managing circadian rhythms.

Workplace well-being programmes

While lighting is an important component in workplace well-being, it’s important to understand that that there are inter-related elements: the individual, the work environment / job role, the organization, and social factors. When done properly, well-being programmes are more than just nice environment initiatives; plants and natural lighting may make the workplace more inviting, but if bullying and harassment are social norms, no amount of natural light is going to make it a pleasant place to work.

Workplace well-being is about creating an organizational culture which promotes strong, ethical workplace relationships based on trust and respect; a collaborative and communicative management style; and a culture in which learning and development are encouraged so that people can fulfil their potential, as well as promoting good physical and psychological health, and enabling broader social engagement. There is growing evidence that many workplace well-being programmes do not deliver any measurable benefits2, most probably because organizations fail to recognise that these interrelated elements need to be tackled together (not to mention failing on getting the ‘foundations’ – good occupational health and safety – right). 

A common focus of well-being programmes is mental resilience – training on ‘how to cope’. Organizations wrongly believe that inoculating their workers against occupational stress, particularly in high performance organizations will keep them working longer and make them happy. Rather, workers want and need a preventative approach which effectively manages the causes of occupational stress so that inoculations are not necessary (and of course inoculations, can have side effects and don’t always work). It is the area of mental (ill) health, where there is often the most confusion between occupational health and safety and workplace well-being programmes. It is simple, however. Organizations should identify and prevent or manage the causes of occupational stress and what is often referred to as ‘psychosocial’ hazards3 – which can lead to physical and mental illness. This is occupational health and safety and should be tackled first. Well-being programmes can enhance mental health through continuous learning, social engagement and encouraging physical exercise (all shown to improve mental health). Occupational health and safety and well-being programmes can also work together to educate workers on mental ill-health – this will bring about workplace and individual benefits.

“the most effective workplace well-being programmes, are those which recognise the need to manage occupational health and safety”

In fact, the most effective workplace well-being programmes, are those which recognise the need to manage occupational health and safety. The WHO (World Health Organization) has developed a healthy workplace model4 aimed at comprehensively addressing:

   Work-related physical and psychosocial risks (occupational health and safety)

   Promotion and support of healthy behaviours (well-being)

   Broader social and environmental determinants (well-being)

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has developed the ‘SOLVE’5 training tool integrating well-being (workplace health promotion) programmes aimed at specific health issues e.g. smoking, with occupational health and safety. In America, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed ‘Total Worker Health®’ (TWH), a more holistic approach to occupational health and safety and worker well-being.6 However, it’s important that this type of model addresses the elements needed to create fulfilment within an individual and unlock their full potential, including creating a diverse and inclusive. workplace; or define the relationship between fulfilled workers and an innovative and resilient organization. Later this year, BSI will be releasing a new model. The model will map out what best practice in creating a culture of trust really looks likes, one that will create the right conditions for individual fulfilment (well-being) and organizational resilience.

References

1.  ILO (International Labour Organization). Workplace Well-being, 2009. Available at http://www.ilo.org/safework/info/WCMS_118396/lang–en/index.htm

2.  Osilla KC, van Busum K, Schnyer C, et al. Systematic review of the impact of worksite wellness programs. Am J Manag Care, 2012; 18, e68-e81

3.  There is no single definition of ‘psychosocial’ but generally encompasses the causes of occupational stress (control, security, work demands, working hours etc.), bullying, harassment and violence, shift work and fatigue Japanese, Chinese

4.  http://www.who.int/occupational_health/healthy_workplaces/en/

5.  https://www.ilo.org/safework/info/instr/WCMS_178438/lang–en/index.htm

6.  https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/twh/

ISO 45003

The first global standard to provide practical guidance on managing psychological health at work, named ISO 45003, Occupational health and safety management – Psychological health and safety at work : managing psychosocial risks – Guidelines, is due to publish in summer 2021. 

The standard recognises that many organizations don’t have specialist, trained workers to manage psychological health and that it needs to be dealt with by people doing all sorts of other primary roles.

It provides guidance on the management of psychosocial risk, as part of an occupational health and safety management system. It includes information on how to recognize the psychosocial hazards that can affect workers, such as those that arise from home working. It also offers examples of effective actions that can be taken to manage these and improve employee wellbeing.

It has been developed by international experts in health and safety to bring together global best practice and distil their knowledge into this new standard. ISO 45003 intends to help organizations using an OHS management system based on ISO 45001, Occupational Health and Safety. It will also be useful for organizations that have not yet implemented an OHS management system.