10 Worker Health Books That Aren’t Fiction

By | July 30, 2017

Nonfiction books about employee wellbeing, worker health, health psychology, occupational medicine, and communications

Summer’s here, and it’s time to unstrap the Fitbit and track some physical inactivity — the kind, for example, that takes place while reading. Pictured here is a pile of books that I’d recommend, or almost recommend, to wonky wellness professionals who have been at it for a while and are still searching.

Since WordPress sometimes does strange things to banner photos, below is another shot of the full stack:

smaller version of book pile featuring books about employee wellness, worker health, and health communicationsYou may think it weird that some of these books are old or even out-of-print. What good does an out-of-print book recommendation do you? Well, sometimes the story of a book is worth telling just as much as the story inside it.

Starting at the bottom of the pile…

Making Health Communication Programs Work.

Can you imagine there was a time — from 1989-2004, to be exact — when the US government gave this health communication book away for free? All you had to do was call and ask. This was the authoritative source on health communication — with more of a public health bent rather than employee wellness — affectionately known to health communicators as “The Pink Book.”

The good news is that you can get the final version of the book as a pdf. Who cares if it doesn’t include the last 13 years of developments? Who cares if the last entry in the glossary is a definition of “World Wide Web”? The book still covers an evidence-based approach to health communication theory and practice, with some behavioral change theory thrown in to boot. Get on it.

Manufacturing Knowledge: A History of the Hawthorne Experiments.

I’ve been studying the Hawthorne experiments for the last couple of years, and have assembled quite the collection of yellowed, musty, out-of-print books, this being one of the most important and, published in 1993, the most recent. At the heart of the matter is the field study of workers, supplemented with detailed interviews of 23,000 workers, under different conditions at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant outside Chicago, in the 1920s and early 1930s. It stands as one of the most important studies of workers, management, and productivity ever.

While the Hawthorne researchers weren’t committed to worker wellbeing as we think of it, they did recognize wellbeing as relevant to productivity. And much of what we believe today about management styles, leadership, employee engagement, and teamwork was rooted in the Hawthorne research. Forget the fact that it started as a study of lighting, or that it had an entire category of bias named after it. Most experts today believe that if there is such a thing as the Hawthorne effect — in which research subjects change their behavior simply as a response to being observed — it didn’t occur at Hawthorne.

Let’s get real… You’re not going to read an old book about a 90-year-old study. So take 9 minutes to listen to this peppy BBC podcast on the topic. Regardless of the Freakonomics interviewee drawing an unfounded explanation of the Hawthorne findings, the podcast may start to give you a sense of how important the Hawthorne experiments are to our understanding of work, motivation, and even research design.

Healthy Work: Stress, Productivity, and the Reconstruction of Working Life.

Yup, out-of-print — I don’t know why, as this is a seminal classic about the relationship between work and health, in which Robert Karasek, one of the most important worker health researchers of our time, lays out the case for the demand/control model of job strain.

Healthy Work may be too technical for a lot of people, but if you can get your hands on a copy, it’s great to keep around and skim through whenever you have a chance. Healthy Work changed how managers, health agencies, and labor organizations around the globe think about worker health.

Health Behavior and Health Education.

Get the 2015 version (5th edition), which is called Health Behavior: Theory, Research, and Practice. Health behaviors aren’t the foundation of employee wellbeing. (Exposures are.) But whether you agree with me or are convinced that, like people always say, “it all comes down to behavior,” isn’t it important to understand what makes health behavior tick?

The Workplace and Cardiovascular Disease.

This book was published in 2000 predominantly for clinicians and other wonks. It gets highly technical — so it’s not something you’ll want to read at the beach. But I keep it handy on my desk. It’s a collection of evidence documenting the relationship between work, psychosocial job stressors, and health, and suggesting a causal relationship — that is, bad jobs lead to poor health. The rigor of the studies contrasts with the vendor- and employer-fueled quasi-science to which wellness professionals are customarily subjected.

Amazon usually sells The Workplace and Cardiovascular Disease, used, for less than 10 bucks. If you want something cheaper and more current, you can try to access the article, “Globalization, Work, and Cardiovascular Disease,” published in 2016 in the International Journal of Health Services. Two of the article’s authors, distinguished researchers Peter Schnall and Paul Landsbergis, were among the editors of the book.

Why Nobody Believes the Numbers.

The only thing I find more painful than hearing our industry called the “ignorati” is noticing that we often do ignore criticism. Sure, we’ve all been paying the price for Al Lewis’s book ever since it was published, but we can be thankful that someone cast skepticism on the claims of the wellness industry. I don’t know if this is Al’s goal, but it is mine: To get better at supporting the wellbeing of the American workforce. In order to achieve this, we need to be able to assess our practices critically, and this book rallies us to do just that.

The Elements of Style.

Because writing!

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.

Former Washington Post reporter turned work-life balance hunter, Brigid Schulte, endeavors to wake up America to the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into by putting obsessive “busyness” and profits ahead of our kids, our spouses, and ourselves. Schulte deconstructs an American culture driven by a destructive sense of individualism and machismo that puts us on a never-ending treadmill — the unhealthy kind — as well as the policies and gender inequality that keep us there. She draws upon the experience of her own work and family life, and visits Denmark where the possibility of a better way reveals itself to her.

The Status Syndrome.

Health is influenced by social status — specifically, our position in the spectrum of autonomy and of full participation in society. The workplace is a microcosm for this “social gradient.” Epidemiologist and author Sir Michael Marmot, who has devoted his career to spotlighting the social determinants of health, led the Whitehall studies — investigations into the work lives and the health of thousands of British civil service workers. Whitehall II is among the most important studies of worker health, but — as with much of the excellent research from Europe and other countries around the globe — is noncommercial and, consequently, infrequently discussed at American wellness conferences. Sir Michael once wrote in Lancet,

Healthy behaviors should be encouraged across the whole of society. More attention should be paid to the social environments, job design, and the consequences of income inequality.

If you’re not ready for The Status Syndrome, read the pdf pamphlet “Work, Stress, and Health: The Whitehall II Study.”

Triangle: The Fire that Changed America.

Of all the books in my pile, this is the one I most enjoyed reading. If it’s nothing else to you, it’s a heart-wrenching story well told. Triangle also is filled with historical detail about working life that, for many, will continue to resonate today. As I wrote in a previous post, the importance of the Triangle Factory fire — along with the events that preceded it and those that ensued — remind us of the context for worker wellbeing, and how it represents something more profound than lower health care costs or even improved morale.

Recently, while re-reading Triangle, I found myself contemplating fun-at-work and similar initiatives as I read the author’s characterization of the Triangle factory’s social dances as a form of “psychological warfare” — a concept not unfamiliar to historians who have studied Welfare Capitalism, including the grand recreational and fitness facilities and activities offered at — where else? — Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant. The legacy of Welfare Capitalism, not the least of which is employer-sponsored health care coverage, lives on in the workplace today.

Worthwhile reading, but not in my pile:

  • Workplace Wellness That Works, by Laura Putnam. At this point in my career, I learn most by delving into topics that are unrelated or only somewhat related to wellness. I don’t own Laura’s book, but I flipped through a co-worker’s copy and found it to be thorough and well-researched. This is the book I’d recommend to someone who’s looking for wellness ideas or trying to assess the evidence basis for employee wellness.
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. Quiet raises consciousness about what life is like for the large segment — perhaps the majority — of employees who consider themselves introverts. This is relevant as we plan our wellness programs and events and target our communications. Quiet isn’t on my pile because I lent it to someone and never got it back. I’d like to think that’s some sort of endorsement.
  • Any text on occupational health psychology. I like The Handbook of Work and Health Psychology, but others will do. Just as we should understand health behavior if we want to influence employees’ exercise and eating habits, we need to learn the science behind stress, burnout, adjustment to change, resilience, depression, motivation, and engagement.

Even if we don’t always understand the science of worker health, we benefit from recognizing that there is science to worker health.

For those interested in evidence-based approaches to wellness, reading these or similar books will be a breeze this summer.