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Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go . . .

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Healthy workers make for happy workplaces.

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As a parent of two young children, I find that cartoon characters are a frequent topic at home.

This sometimes bridges over into work, and it was the seven dwarfs that came to mind while writing this article on work and health.

In many ways, Happy, Doc and the rest of the gang represent all the great things about work. They are employed in occupations they appear to enjoy and, based on their advanced age, have likely gained many of the benefits of having a positive work life.

The health benefits of work are numerous, and those of us who find an enjoyable and fulfilling career typically live happier, healthier lives. Unfortunately, not all work environments are as ideal as Doc’s. Given that many of us spend more of our waking hours at work than anywhere else, it is critical we understand the impacts work can have on health.

It is not news that some workplaces can be hazardous, but research is increasing our understanding of the diverse variety of workplace factors that affect health. The Whitehall series of studies is one well-known example of this type of research, demonstrating how workplace environments affect a wide range of health issues — from mental health to heart disease.

Increasingly, both employers and employees are recognizing the importance of workplace environments that promote health.

The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce is a local champion in responding to these challenges. Recent work by the Chambers includes the report Shaping Manitoba’s Future: Our Healthcare, which identifies that "... a healthier population means a more productive workforce..." and "...our aim is to rally Manitobans to make Manitoba the healthiest province in Canada."

To help make this vision a reality, the Chambers is supporting a campaign initiated by the provincial government to promote healthier workplaces.  

Wellness Works encourages employers and employees to work together in areas such as tobacco cessation, physical activity and mental health. The kick-off for Wellness Works was held recently at the Winnipeg headquarters of National Leasing, which has made significant investments in creating a workplace environment that promotes healthier employees. You can see some of these efforts, and the positive effects they are having, in the Our Story video on the National Leasing website.  

The last 100 to 200 years have seen incredible improvements in population health, and one of the main reasons for this is safer workplaces. As the type of work we do has evolved significantly over the past 200 years, the challenge going forward is to better understand the ways in which our modern workplaces positively and negatively impact health, and steps we can take to make workplaces as health-promoting as possible. The benefits at an individual level, at the corporate level and for the economy overall are enormous.

We should all ask: What factors in our workplace make it easier or more difficult to become healthier? This question can and should stimulate us to "work" towards solutions. The more employers and employees can look at ways to modify their workplace environments to replicate the sense of job satisfaction and productivity that Doc and the gang demonstrated, the better our collective health can be.

Dr. Michael Routledge is Manitoba’s Chief Provincial Public Health Officer.

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