Give Your Company a Checkup

September 1, 1995
Statistics from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) show that workplace problems are increasing at a terrifying rate. Murder in the workplace is the fastest-growing form of homicide in America. Each and every day, an average of three people are murdered on the job. According to Northwestern National Life's 1993 survey on "Fear and Violence in the Workplace," approximately two million full-time workers were physically attacked on the job between July 1992 and July 1993.

The study also suggests there's a strong relationship between violence, job stress and workplace harassment.

These problems can be minimized if employers begin evaluating the environment their employees are working in and begin making the changes necessary to ensure the health and safety of their employees.

Michael Mantell, a psychologist and expert in workplace violence who was recently quoted in "Psychology Today," says, "violence in the workplace is the ultimate manifestation of job stress." Employees and managers are under more stress than ever before. They feel constant pressure to prove their value to their employers by working both longer and harder with fewer resources available to help them get the job done.

"Employee Burnout: Causes and Cures," a 1992 research report conducted by Northwestern National Life, reveals that "job stress has reached critical proportions in the American work force, and is a consequence of two key ingredients: a high level of job demands and little control over one's work." Such factors are causing employees today to experience frequent stress-related physical, emotional and mental symptoms.

"Whatever the causes, prolonged stress, burnout and violence have found their way through the work-place door, and the results are clearly being left"

Illness and death from overwork are emerging as critical issues that need to be addressed. In fact, the Japanese are faced with a growing problem called karoshi or death from overwork. It's now the second leading cause of death, after cancer, among Japanese workers. Karoshi was officially recognized by the Japanese government in 1989 and defined as a fatal syndrome involving high blood pressure and high levels of stress associated with too many hours on the job.

Clearly, workplaces and work habits that don't adequately allow for the human need to unwind periodically create stress, erode physical and mental health, and lower productivity. They also increase the likelihood of accidents, injury, harassment, discrimination, absenteeism and turnover. Whatever the causes, the fact remains that prolonged stress, burnout and violence have found their way through the workplace door, and the results are clearly being felt. Arguably, a society with healthy workplaces would be a superior place for everyone.

Every single one of us prefer working in a pleasant environment to working in an unpleasant one. In healthy organizations, employees enjoy going to work, they like the people they work with, and they feel good about themselves and their organization. This satisfaction is no small matter, since most of us spend the greater part of our waking hours at work. Unfortunately, organizations rarely focus sufficient resources or attention on improving the emotional health and well-being of the work environment. It's strange that few experts have ever analyzed the dynamics of a good workplace or tried to ascertain its essential characteristics. It's also odd that when you review current literature on worksite health-promotion efforts and programs, you discover much of the focus is on risk modification, self-management, informed-choice programs and disease prevention. These programs depend on the individual employee to modify behavior and reduce health-care and related costs. Although these efforts are to be applauded, some of the same organizations that have won national awards for health promotion have later reduced their work force through layoffs conducted in the most unhealthy manner, with seriously negative impact and cost to the same individuals in whom they were attempting to promote health. How can we truly promote health in individuals without improving the health of organizations? How can we increase stress at work and expect people to live healthier lives?

Much of the management literature proliferating today takes a we-them stance, measuring how we, the managers, get them, the employees, to do what we want them to do. Thus, improving the work environment is often justified only when it appears to be a means to another end, such as improving worker productivity. And many quality-improvement programs are initiated for the same reason—because customers demand it. When these are the primary motivating factors, the efforts often fail. This we-them stance also distorts workplace relationships, and at the same time ignores the fact that managers are employees too. A work environment full of tension like this takes its toll on all employees, and on the stability of the organization, its products and services, and its relationship to its customers.

The conventional business assumption that the only legitimate objective is to increase profit often excludes the idea that creating a healthy work environment is a valid objective in and of itself. In a great workplace, however, both goals are seen as compatible. How people are treated is important. Indeed, many good employers would argue that creating a healthy workplace enhances a firm's ability to perform well financially.

Studies have found that the more participatory the style of management within organizations, the higher the level of financial and behavioral success companies experience. Companies that allow for employee participation through communication of critical information and joint decision making show lower employee turnover, absenteeism and grievances than other firms. Conversely, unhealthy work environments can often lead to costly claims of employer negligence, safety violations and liability claims.

Companies no longer can ignore the increasingly devastating human and financial toll of layoffs, stress, harassment and violence in the workplace. These are real problems facing organizations across the country. If these issues aren't addressed, many companies will suffer serious financial and human losses.

Clearly, the dysfunction that exists in many present-day work environments is well known to most of us. But the attributes of healthy work environments are less well known. If we are to successfully modify behavior in individuals and effectively reduce costs, we must focus on identifying and developing the qualities and characteristics of healthy organizations. The key components of these organizations are communication, trust, opportunity for personal growth and development, fairness, team ethics, and humanistic policies, procedures and practices.

To begin creating healthy workplaces, we must first learn to communicate.
The workplace is a model of interdependent relationships. For these relationships to be truly successful, we need to communicate—and we need to communicate constantly. The quality of human relationships depends upon the nature, quality and frequency of communication. Greater harmony exists when people communicate openly and respectfully. Norman Plummer, president of Monitrx Inc., a San Francisco-based health-care consulting firm, is one person who believes in effective communication. "If you don't provide an environment for open communication, you'll suffer through revolutions rather than evolutions," he says.

People need to have human contact every day. The contact needs to be face to face, frequent, open and honest. It's important to avoid the technology trap. Although E-mail and voicemail represent great technological accomplishments, they're not replacements for face-to-face interactions.

Information is a source of power in both organizations and relationships. Employees within healthy organizations share information broadly, making it easier for individuals to understand and agree with company decisions. But, when managers restrict the flow of information, they further their own personal power at the expense of those underneath them. This in turn creates serious organizational problems, because the more knowledge and information people have, the better their individual work will be, and the more productive the collective effort will be. Therefore, it's important to establish formal channels of communication and utilize them consistently. Healthy organizations take a very open stance concerning the sharing of information, and make accessible many things that other organizations would consider confidential. Truthfully, there's very little that actually needs to be confidential in most organizations. Taking an open approach to communication breaks down the informal class structure that too often exists in business environments, keeps management accountable to employees and allows no single person to be above reproach.

"When communication breaks down and people rely on gossip mistrust starts to build. Once credibility is lost, individual cooperation suffers."

Information should be communicated freely from employers to employees to avoid rumors and informal power structures from evolving. Confusion often is created when employees aren't given the correct information. In addition, when communication breaks down and people rely on gossip, mistrust starts to build. Once credibility is lost, individual cooperation suffers.

Effective communication brings trust, an absolute necessity in healthy organizations. The presence or absence of trust is the most powerful influence in any workplace. When mutual trust exists, it functions at a deeper level to offset the realities of work life that tend to dehumanize the workplace. With trust, people and workplaces flourish. People take more pride in what they do and achieve deeper satisfaction from relationships with co-workers. But without trust, the workplace easily becomes dehumanized, and employees feel detached from their work. Trust is often totally lacking in dysfunctional workplaces, and appears only sporadically in mediocre ones. It's always present, however, in high-functioning workplaces. Trust implies taking a calculated risk with one's eyes open to the possibility of failure. It is extended with the expectation of success. By bestowing trust in employees, a company is saying that each individual is a vital part of the organization, while creating a new kind of relationship with employees that breaks down barriers often created by management. Trust also helps employees feel part of the team. Trust shouldn't be extended lightly. It's a critical thread in the fabric of a healthy and successful workplace.

For example, one organization that communicated openly, honestly and in a timely manner about an impending layoff gained the respect and trust of its employees by sharing the business rationale for the layoffs and the process that management went through to make its decisions. Employees were also given an opportunity to share their fears and concerns about the changes that were taking place. As a result, people felt their needs and feelings were an important part of the decision-making process.

Trust doesn't just happen. It's the product of what has happened within the workplace over time and between individuals. Certain acts add to the trust we feel, while others reduce it. Donna Whittington, director of the member services department at Lifeguard, a California-based HMO, has greatly increased efficiency, productivity and morale in her department by creating a self-directed team environment. She entrusted the member-service representatives to recommend solutions to the problems they faced each day. This approach also led to increased member satisfaction and improvements in the products the company makes. "I had enough respect for them to really listen to what they had to say, and everybody truly benefited," says Whittington.

Clearly, the maintenance and growth of trust is a central concept to healthy organizations and healthy management practices. Mary Jones, vice president of administration for Novato, California-based Birkenstock, knows the importance of trust in her company. "Our most successful managers are our most trusted managers," she says.

Healthy organizations should be lands of opportunity for those who work hard.
In addition to building trust, Birkenstock prides itself on being an organization that's flowing with opportunities for personal growth and development. There's little politicking going on in this organization. People aren't spending their time and energy backstabbing, jockeying for position or impressing the boss, because such behaviors are neither encouraged nor rewarded in healthy environments. Rather, people are rewarded for the work they do, their behavior and their ability to uphold the values of the organization.

People in healthy organizations think in terms of careers, not jobs. They take pride in their work, and their career paths are clear. They feel recognized and are rewarded for their efforts. Those who produce are able to share in the results, the wealth and the recognition of their company. These individuals are focused on continually improving and expanding their skill base, while enhancing the quality of their work and the level of their participation.

"In healthy organizations, a clear distinction is made between honest errors in judgment and consistent failure to meet agree-upon expectations."

Workers aren't afraid to take risks in healthy organizations because, within these workplaces, a clear distinction is made between honest errors in judgment and consistent failure to meet agreed-upon expectations. Many people want to feel they're being treated fairly on the job and trust they will continue to be, regardless of the situation. In some high- level organizations, management takes a philosophy of criticize up, praise down because that's the way to get action and effect change. Using this approach helps encourage people to discuss concerns because they believe that problems will be addressed and resolved. It also promotes creativity and innovation because employees feel that good ideas will be rewarded.

In organizations that adhere to this philosophy, managers are expected to listen to complaints and take action to correct problems. They tend to give credit where credit is due, as opposed to unhealthy organizations in which managers are prone to promoting themselves, rather than their employees. And when employees feel they have no avenue to challenge decisions they consider unfair, they often end up feeling intimidated and powerless. For this reason, several remarkable companies have made serious efforts to incorporate democracy to promote fairness in the workplace.

Memphis, Tennessee-based Federal Express Corp., for example, has a policy which states that employees have the right to work in an environment free of intimidation. They're provided with a list of guidelines to follow if they feel in any way that they're being intimidated, harassed or treated unfairly.

Fairness holds a good workplace together, and can make it great. When employees perceive that management makes a sincere effort to be fair to all employees in compensation and benefits, in promotions and in coping with disputes with supervisors, they're more likely to extend their trust in other areas.

One such area involves team building. Healthy organizations embrace the general principles of teamwork. They know that teams outperform individuals. They live team concepts, applying what they know in a disciplined way. Teams don't form because we call groups of people together, or because we send employees to team-building workshops. Real teams form in companies with strong and clear performance standards. Jones says, "Rewards [at Birkenstock] are for performance and teamwork—it's never been about rewarding individuals. You never say, 'look what I did.' You only say, 'look what we did.'"

Managers in healthy organizations know they can't master the opportunities and challenges confronting them without emphasizing teams. Performance challenges in areas such as customer service, technological change and competitive threats all demand the kind of responsiveness, speed, customization and quality that's beyond the reach of individual performers. Teams can bridge this gap, and are key to enhancing performance.

Policies, procedures and practices based upon the preceding principles are the foundation for all healthy organizations.
The process companies use to ensure these principles are upheld is crucial for the stability of health in any work environment. Company policies must support all employees and seek to break down, not build up, barriers between management and employees. All policies must be applied consistently—one standard should exist for everyone. If any stated policy or principle isn't upheld, a clearly stated course of action must be made available.

In addition, clearly stated performance standards must be set, communicated and demanded of all employees. All performance issues must be dealt with as they occur in a proactive, positive manner. In a healthy environment, not dealing with issues or conflict directly and proactively can't be tolerated, because ignored issues don't go away. They, instead, become tomorrow's critical incidents.

Birkenstock, for example, utilizes a six-person personnel department, and often employs the services of organization-development professionals to take part in key management decisions. Jones, who has been with Birkenstock since the company was founded in 1967, says the company has been instituting organizational-health policies since its inception. Birkenstock's policies, procedures and practices exemplify the trust and respect the company feels for its employees. The benefits and programs the company offers its 125 employees are unheard of in a company of its size. According to Jones, Birkenstock offers its employees a variety of benefits, including flextime, shorter hours and a work-at-home option. Its success proves the wisdom of adopting health-oriented measures.

Birkenstock's values are clear, and they operate each day according to those values. The commitment to teamwork is consistently applied throughout the organization and is reinforced by how people are managed, treated and compensated. The company's attention to organizational health in the workplace has been a critical component of its success, and has sustained the growth and stability of the company and its employees.

According to Jones, "Birkenstock's organizational values are unflappable. They don't change to fit individuals—they apply to everyone. Team ethics are critical to the success of this company. And the attention we give to developing teams has really paid off for us. We take the time, we spend the money and we get the training we need. You feel guilty if you don't live by the team ethic. Most of us are used to working in competitive environments, but this feels so much better."

Truly, healthy organizations, such as Birkenstock, must be cultivated. Several things must change for this to happen: our attitude about work, our attitudes toward each other, our approaches to managing employees and even the atmosphere we work in. You can't hurry it. Management needs to move step by step with employees, breaking down the barriers between them along the way. These changes are hard work, and always take longer than anticipated. But in the long run, it's the key to individual and organizational success.

From an organizational perspective, we can continue to create stressful environments, erode mental and physical health and spend endless time and money suffering the consequences. Or, we can begin to focus our energies on creating healthy work environments that reduce stress, enrich lives and achieve financial stability for both the organization and its employees.

Personnel Journal, September 1995, Vol. 74, No. 9, pp. 143-149.