OHS Canada Magazine

Considering happiness and stress as leading indicators

As our understanding of neuroscience evolves, how we manage workplace safety and health must also evolve


When we better understand the chemistry of human emotions and their effects on the brain and nervous system, it becomes clear that workplace happiness, or lack thereof, it is indeed a leading indicator of incidents and overall safety performance. (Lakshmiprasad/Adobe Stock)

In safety management, leading indicators are highly valuable predictors of future losses to people, property, process and the environment. They are early warning signs of potential safety management system failures and give organizations the opportunity to identify and control deficiencies before they result in incidents. 

Typical examples of leading indicators include: hazard and near-miss reporting; the amount of time it takes management to respond to incident reports (indicating management commitment to workplace safety); and the frequency and findings of workplace inspections.

As our understanding of neuroscience evolves, how we manage workplace safety and health must also evolve. 

Let’s take workplace attitudes or “happiness” as an example.  When we better understand the chemistry of human emotions and their effects on the brain and nervous system, it becomes clear that workplace happiness, or lack thereof, it is indeed a leading indicator of incidents and overall safety performance.

Happiness vs. stress

From a neuroscience point of view, when employees are happy and optimistic, their brain and body produce chemicals of well-being that include dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin.

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An effect of “happy” chemicals includes increasing immune system response, which predicts less sickness and absenteeism. 

In addition, “happy hormones” are necessary to keep humans connected to the frontal lobe of their brain. The frontal lobe is the marvel of our evolutionary development and where our higher reasoning resides. It’s also the part of the brain responsible for executive functions like emotion regulation, impulse control, creative problem solving, decision making and seeing the big picture.

In contrast, employees working in environments where the primary emotions are negative — fear, worry or anxiety — are constantly producing chemicals of stress, such as adrenaline and cortisol.

Examples of work environments triggering stress across the workforce include autocratic leadership, production demands, fear of the unknown, or concern for physical safety. As a result of perpetually signalling the “fight-or-flight response,” these employees are living in survival mode.

Relevance to OH&S

Just like an animal in self-preservation mode, employees experiencing ongoing stress will naturally want to fight, run or hide. They are more likely to become aggressive, selfish and reactive, resulting in more instances of workplace harassment — and even violence. 

If they prefer to cope by “hiding,” they are more likely to call in sick to avoid work or quit.

As a result of stress, blood pressure increases and blood vessels constrict to prepare for external threats, which can lead to increases in heart risks, injuries and conflicts.

Ongoing workplace stress also predicts increases in musculoskeletal injuries (MSI). Over time, the constant release of adrenaline in the body results in hardening and catabolism of muscle tissues.

This explains why during times of stress, people often complain of sore and stiff muscles, particularly in their neck and back.

Sustained stress causes the body to release cortisol, inhibiting muscle repair and suppressing the immune system so the body cannot recover properly. A person in anger or frustration is more likely to slam a door or throw a box harder than they normally would.  Its easy to see why stress in a workplace would produce an increase in MSI injuries and thus workers’ compensation costs.

Workplace effect on well-being

In summary, scientific studies show that workplace safety, health and productivity directly correlate to the level of well-being experienced by employees in the organization. 

Shawn Achor, author of the book The Happiness Advantage, found in his Harvard research that:

• students primed to feel happy before a math achievement test far outperformed their peers

• optimistic salespeople outsell pessimistic ones by 56 per cent

• doctors in a positive state make accurate diagnoses 19 per cent faster

• when in a positive state of mind, employees are 31 per cent more intelligent

• happy workplaces have been shown to be 10 times more productive.

In relating these findings back to workplace happiness and stress as leading indicators of overall safety and health performance, it makes sense that the prevalent attitudes and emotions of an organization provide a strong indication of future incidents, absenteeism, workers’ compensation claims, and even turnover. 

Leaders of the future will be measuring, managing and reaping the return on investment by making workplace happiness a leading indicator of organizational performance.

Theo Heineman, CRSP, CHSC, B.Sc.Ag., founder and CEO of 1Life Workplace Safety Solutions in Winnipeg, is a certified NeuroChangeSolutions consultant and a regular columnist for OHS Canada.

This Neurosafety column appears in the May/June 2021 issue of OHS Canada.


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