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Live work and play

[ The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 6, No. 5  3 May - 13 June 2010 ]

Work is crucial to our health and well being. Associate Professor Anthony D. LaMontagne looks at means of protecting us from its harmful effects and optimising work’s health-promoting aspects.

The McCaughey Centre, based in the Melbourne School of Population Health, is dedicated to research, policy and practice to promote mental health and community well-being. The Centre works closely with its primary funder, VicHealth, to generate “knowledge for common good” across a number of theme areas, including work.

Work is an important determinant of health and wellbeing in contemporary society, more so – we would argue – than most people recognise. The aims of the work and health theme are to develop the scientific and public understanding of work as a social determinant of mental and physical health, and to contribute to improvements in policy and practice to better protect people from the harmful effects of work as well as to optimise the health-promoting aspects. Our research is multi-disciplinary, and – wherever possible – is conducted in partnership with communities, practitioners, and policy-makers, with the goals of grounding the research in real working world priorities and perspectives, building the capacity of workplace stakeholders to improve worker health, and optimising the translation of our research into policy and practice.

These efforts are underpinned by a philosophy that everyone deserves to have their dignity, health, and well-being, at a minimum, protected at work, with the vision of work for all that develops and promotes dignity, health, and well-being. Health protection aspects are grounded in occupational health and safety and the legal right across Australia and other OECD countries to work that is free from recognised hazards (akin to the medical motto of “first, do no harm”). The second is more grounded in health promotion, developing a vision of sustainable work – sustainable for the individual worker over the course of his or her working life, as well as sustainable for families, communities, society and the natural environment.

We pursue our aims through four main types of activity. First is applied research to improve the understanding of the relationships between work and health, including original research to generate new knowledge as well as the synthesis and interpretation of existing knowledge.

In a recent example, we estimated that job stress accounts for 15 per cent of prevalent depression among working Victorians. A related systematic review of 90 international job stress intervention studies showed that the adverse effects of job stress can effectively be prevented by systems approaches that combine worker-directed factors such as strengthening resilience and work-directed intervention including improving worker control and limiting workloads.

A second approach is intervention research in workplace health, including research on the development of the most appropriate intervention strategies to address a given concern, as well as evaluation research to assess how well such interventions are implemented and how effective they are at making change. In a current study, we are collaborating with beyondblue to develop, implement, and evaluate an integrated job stress and workplace mental health promotion intervention program. This approach aims to address depression and other common mental disorders in the workplace regardless of cause, while at the same time reducing job stress-related mental disorders.

Thirdly, knowledge translation and exchange with community partners links our research to policy and practice, including collaborative formulation of research questions such as deciding what new knowledge is needed to better understand or address a workplace concern, and collaborative implementation of intervention activities, or joint interpretation of research findings and development of recommendations for policy and practice.

Two recent examples of uptake of our research in national policy documents are noteworthy. The 2009 Australian National Preventative Taskforce reports incorporated our findings on links between working conditions and health behaviours, such as job stress and smoking, and working conditions as preventable determinants of common chronic diseases. Most importantly is the uptake in the report recommendations of the need for, and promise of, new workplace health promotion approaches that target working conditions and health behaviours in an integrated way. Internationally, our research was similarly incorporated into the 2009 American Heart Association Policy Statement on Worksite Wellness Programs for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention in September 2009.

Finally, we build capacity to generate workplace health research and translate it into policy and practice. This includes University-based education of post-graduate, medical, and other students, who may subsequently pursue or resume careers in research, policy, or practice; and outreach to practitioners and policy-makers not currently participating in certificate or degree programs. We have an active post-graduate research program as well as on-going relationships with workplace stakeholders in Victoria and nationally.

Our goal through these McCaughey Centre efforts, along with those of our community partners and other workplace stakeholders, is to contribute to the on-going improvement of the quality of Australian working life.

Associate Professor Anthony D. LaMontagne directs work and health research at the McCaughey Centre. For further information:

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