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Workplace health initiatives

While workplaces can be detrimental to employee health, they may also play a significant role in maintaining employee health and preventing ill health among employees. APS agencies provide a wide range of health and wellbeing programs for employees. In 2012–13, 92% of agencies had either fully or partially developed health and wellbeing programs in place to support their employees. The programs most commonly provided by agencies were ergonomic programs such as workstation assessments (96%), general lifestyle programs (91%) and mental health programs (69%).

Agencies were also asked to identify strategies they had used to support employees who had ongoing health issues. The most commonly used strategies were:

  • flexible work arrangements (98%)
  • supervisory support and assistance (89%)
  • health resources and services (76%).

The Department of Health and Ageing's ‘Healthy Workers Initiative’ provides an example of a workplace health initiative within the APS. This program provides employers with a range of resources from both Australian and international sources that can assist in the creation of a healthier workplace.25 Creating a healthier workplace involves four steps:

  • gaining support from management
  • engaging employees
  • assessing needs
  • using first-steps tools (such as an employee survey or a workplace health audit).

Healthy workplaces

While workplaces can play a role in preventing ill health among employees through programs such as those discussed here, the evidence suggests these types of programs help reduce workplace absences but do little to improve overall health outcomes for employees.26 Similarly, while often somewhat extravagant claims are made about the return on investment for workplace health and wellbeing programs, recent research conducted in Australia27 and overseas28 suggests the return on investment for these programs is more modest than often claimed.

A healthy workplace is about more than a bowl of fruit on the reception counter or the provision of an external program that provides education about healthy living, although these types of initiatives can contribute. Both the culture around workplace safety and leadership behaviours in the workplace, particularly supportive leadership behaviours, can contribute to creating a healthy workplace.

Safety culture

An organisation's safety culture reflects the values and beliefs held by employees in an organisation that relate to safety in the workplace. Results from the employee census show a strong relationship between employees who have been injured and their perceptions of safety culture in their organisation. APS employees who have been injured or become ill due to work are four times more likely to disagree that the people in their workgroup are committed to workplace safety, five times more likely to disagree their supervisor is committed to workplace safety, three times more likely to disagree their agency cares about employees being healthy and safe at work, and almost five times more likely to disagree their agency supports employees who become injured or ill at work.

When the relationship between perceptions of agency safety culture and whether an employee made a claim for compensation was considered, however, no aspect of safety culture had a substantial relationship with applying for compensation. This suggests that the processes agencies have in place for supporting employees and monitoring workplace injuries are unaffected by the safety culture of the workplace.

Employee census data also suggests that agency safety culture is related to a range of attitudinal measures, including those relating to job satisfaction and work conditions discussed previously. Figure 4.13 shows that employees who were more positive about these measures were also more positive about all aspects of the safety culture in their workplace.

Figure 4.13 The relationship between safety culture and measures of job satisfaction and work conditions, 2013

Source: Employee census


Figure 4.14 shows a similar relationship between perceptions of safety culture and perceptions of the demands in the workplace and the sense of control employees have. Employees who were more positive about the safety culture of their workplace also reported lower levels of demand and higher levels of control than employees who were not positive about their workplace safety culture. These latter employees showed the opposite pattern of reported demand and control. This data suggests that safety culture is worth investigating further as a possible way to improve employee health and wellbeing.

Figure 4.14 The relationship between safety culture and work demands and control, 2013

Source: Employee census


While the wider implications of good leadership for APS organisational performance are dealt with in Chapter 2, research conducted in the Australian public sector has shown that higher levels of supportive leadership predicted higher levels of employee wellbeing.29 Supportive leadership is an element of transformational leadership and is characterised by the leader providing general support for employees in a manner that indicates a degree of respect for employees and an appreciation of their needs. The need for leaders to support employees is clearly articulated in the APS Leadership and Core Skills Strategy.30

Figures 4.15 and 4.16 show that APS workplaces where leaders supported their employees and treated people with respect were also more positive on measures relating to job satisfaction and work conditions.

Figure 4.15 The relationship between supportive leader behaviours and measures of job satisfaction and work conditions, 2013

Source: Employee census


Figure 4.16 The relationship between leader respect and workplace wellbeing, 2013

Source: Employee census

Although the direct benefit of workplace health initiatives may be equivocal, the workplace can contribute to employee health and wellbeing in very positive ways through the culture of the workplace and behaviour of colleagues and leaders in the workplace.


25 Department of Health and Ageing, Healthy Workers, (2012), http://www.healthyworkers.gov.au/.

26 SH van Oostrom, MT Driessen, HCW de Vet, RL Franche, E Schonstein, P Loisel, W van Mechelen and JR Anema, Workplace Interventions for Preventing Work Disability, Wiley Publishers, (2009).

27 S Baxter, K Sanderson, L Blizzard, A Venn and A Palmer, What Return on Investment can we Expect? Evidence from a Quality-Based Systematic Review, (2013).

28 A Rogen, SJW Robroek, FJ van Lenthe and A Burdorf, ‘Workplace Health Promotion: A Meta-Analysis of Effectiveness’, American Journal of Preventative Medicine, (2013), vol. 44, no. 4, pp. 406–415.

29 CJ Newton and NI Maierhofer, ‘Supportive Leadership and Well-being: The Role of Team Value Congruence’, in Proceedings 40th Australian Psychological Society Annual Conference, Melbourne, (2005).

30 Australian Public Service Commission, APS Leadership and Core Skills Strategy 2012–13, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2012).

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018