Health perceptions of blue-collar workers and supervisors in a Southern German chemical production plant

Lu, Shao-Xi (2010) Health perceptions of blue-collar workers and supervisors in a Southern German chemical production plant.

Abstract:Motivation In the last decennia, the amount of accidents within organizations has decreased; meanwhile diseases with a long-term onset where multiple factors are involved appear more often nowadays. As health problems and their causes have changed, this influences the perceptions of them. In an organization different views of employees and supervisors might lead to negative effects such as unsuccessful health interventions. Previous research has investigated health perceptions mainly from employee viewpoint. However, a more complete understanding might be gained if both employees and supervisors are examined. It has been stated that blue-collar workers might be especially prone to being and behaving unhealthy. The objective of this study is to put the health perceptions of blue-collar workers and those of supervisors‟ side-by-side. The research was conducted in a production plant in southern German. The main research question is: How do blue-collar workers and supervisors perceive the role of health within a chemical production plant in Southern Germany? Theoretical Framework In this research the central concepts are: “organizational climate” and “lay health beliefs”. The concept of organizational climate concerns the shared perceptions among members of an organization with regard to fundamental properties such as policies, procedures and practices (Dov, 2008). Organizational climate according to Schein (1985) can be described according three levels: the organizational level, the group level and the individual level. Previous research has focused mainly on the organizational level where processes at higher organization levels (such as policies, strategies and goals) take place. The individual level is concerned with processes particular to one person, like attitudes. Not much attention is given to the individual level during organizational climate research. The related field of health communication however addresses attitudes by the concept of lay health beliefs. Lay health beliefs according to Hughner and Schultz Kleine (2004) enclose in contrast to professional health beliefs morals and values. Lay health beliefs include a) the definition of health b) reasons and explanations for health, c) external and unexplainable factors of health and d) the role of health in life. Within this research further attention is given to the role of communication regarding occupational health, especially on two aspects of communication that have been highlighted in previous studies. On the one hand communication acts as a means to achieve successful health interventions; on the other hand communication acts as a main factor that influences employee health. Both aspects are related to each other and cannot be seen distinctively. Research Design and Method The research is conducted through semi-structured interviews (N=14) with blue-collar workers and focus group interviews with supervisors (N=3). In the focus group the operational and strategic management was interviewed. Interview guides were made including first, the categories of lay health beliefs transposed to the organizational context and second, questions regarding the perception of existing health interventions. The interview guides were pretested in advance as well as continuously adjusted and refined during the data collection. The interviews were transcribed according to a transcription guideline following Froschauer and Lueger (2003). The transcripts of the blue-collar workers interviews contained 128 pages, single-line spaced; those of supervisors 55 pages. Categories were created along with the interview guide and the interviews were labeled accordingly. Interview fragments that did not fit the initial categories were rearranged and integrated when the topics of the categories became clear. A summary was made to overview the mentioned topics. From this summary the significant findings were extracted, the most articulate citations being presented here. Results First, the findings show that blue-collar workers distinguish between private and work aspects. Some blue-collar workers believed that the organization takes care of employee health and others that the organization is concerned mainly about health due to legal requirements. Occupational health is new to most supervisors. It is unclear to them which role health should play. Engaging in health is not legally obligated and seen as the responsibility of employees. Still it is beneficial to counter absenteeism and to enhance performance. Second, physical aspects, the relationships among blue-collar workers and supervisors, shift work and healthy behavior have been mentioned to be health influencing. With regard to physical aspects, the organization is legally obligated to avoid health hazards. This aspect has been treated through workplace safety efforts to a great extend, and with remarkable successes. When it comes to the evaluation of work-load however, it is an area of conflict whether the load is part of the job or already a harmful effect. Blue-collar workers emphasize that the communication about workload opposed to the load itself is problematic. Further they pointed out that the relationships among blue-collar and supervisors influences their health most. A tendency to blame-cast occurred among the respondents regarding who is responsible for a bad employee-employer relationship. A few blue-collar workers mentioned shift work to be health influencing. Supervisors held the opinion that shift work was not problematic, due to its financial compensation. Blue-collar workers argued that they had no alternative due to family commitment. When it comes to healthy lifestyle behavior respondents thought that mainly blue-collar workers are responsible. Some interventions have been implemented, but participation is problematic. Blue-collar workers do not wish to be obligated to behave healthy. Finally, a directive communication style none the less dominates within the organization. Participative communication styles and employee involvement from supervisors viewpoint is valuable. Still, operational managers considered that they have too little time to communicate interpersonally. Conclusion and Discussion First, the findings show that the definition of health currently in operation is narrowed towards physical health hazards. However, multiple causes have been mentioned and blue-collar workers and supervisors differ in what significantly influences health. A broader definition of health is needed to avoid the conflicts regarding responsibility. Only then health interventions can be successful. The second major conclusion is that the discussion regarding who is responsible for health is complex, because responsibility understandings differ depending on the distinct causes of health. Regarding health harming aspects mainly the organization is thought to be responsible, where healthy lifestyle behavior is for the most part the responsibility of blue-collar workers. Regarding shift work a social dimension plays a role: blue-collar workers with a low social economical status have limited financial resources to freely choose shift working. With regard to employee-employer relationship blame-casting appeared often; however, recognizing a joint responsibility would give the opportunity to enhance the relationship among the members of the organization. The distribution of responsibilities thus depends on the special aspect of health and is furthermore an area of conflict due to multiple moderating aspects. Taking a closer look on the two previous main conclusions, the great role of communication is striking. Communication is needed to find a joint definition for health that satisfies the individual understanding of health; and in the same way finding the right distribution of responsibilities towards the various health causing aspects needs to be negotiated between blue-collar workers and supervisors. A directive communication style and the tendency to blame-cast however is contra productive. Moreover during analysis of the interviews it appeared that individual perception and communication is intertwined. When considering theories regarding occupational health this connectivity should be taken into concern. Theories need to be developed that combine both, the concept of health climate (the interactive aspect) and the concept of health beliefs (the individual aspect).
Item Type:Essay (Master)
Faculty:BMS: Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences
Subject:05 communication studies
Programme:Communication Studies MSc (60713)
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