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Strong workers' unions, good HR policy build stronger GDP

12 July, 2013

Countries where workers are protected by strong unions and good work and safety policies that acknowledge the importance of psychologically safe work environments have a higher GDP.

New research into the working conditions and psychosocial health of workers and the political environments in 31 European countries has shown not only a link between workers health and life expectancy, but also a correlation between improved health in the workplace and better national productivity.

The international study undertaken by Professor Maureen Dollard and Daniel Y Neser at the University of South Australia's Centre for Applied Psychological Research and recently published in the journal of Social Science and Medicine, explores whether work-related stress factors explain national differences in health and productivity (GDP).

"The research shows that national ideology, policy and the power of groups such as unions in supporting workplace psychosocial safety climate are important in promoting better psychosocial health and ultimately better all round health," Prof Dollard says.

"There is a proven link between stress and poor health outcomes. Our study shows for the first time a direct link between worker health, life expectancy and GDP."

The researchers found that worker health accounted for 13 per cent of the variance in life expectancy at a national level.

A key finding was that national health inequalities have their basis in national power and structural factors — union presence and effectiveness and workplace policies and practices.

"What the research also shows is that there is a tangible economic benefit at the macro level from the presence of quality union representation in partnership with organisational management structures that protect workers health and psychological wellbeing."

The researchers looked at the differences between outcomes for workers and for the national GDP across nations with conservative, liberal and social democrat governments.

They found that nations that gave rise to both high levels of union density and a climate of psychosocial safety in the workplace were more likely to be social democracies such as Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark. Both Ireland and the UK ranked in the top 10 but Germany and France were in the bottom third at 22 and 29 respectively.

"We have uncovered that the fundamental ideology regarding labour market legislation, policies and welfare regimes in concert with effective unions and management give workers much better protections at work and better health outcomes," Prof Dollard says.

"Whatever the government, these elements have to be in play or an accepted part of society to maintain those positive outcomes.

"It is interesting that nations with what we might term neo-Liberal such as Ireland and the UK also fared well mainly due to good workplace practices perhaps driven by professional management approaches that measure health and safety outcomes as key performance indicators.

"In neo-Liberal economies management may be active in developing good practices to reduce costs to productivity such as high absence costs.

"What the research gives us is a simple message: a healthy workforce is good for the economy; developing a society that supports worker wellbeing, health and safety through both union support and advocacy and improved policies and practices in the workplace delivers better health and a stronger GDP."

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