Experts: Psychologically Healthy Workplaces Boost Business

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 10, 2010

Workplaces that foster employee health and well-being create an environment of improved employee productivity, attendance, retention and engagement, the American Psychological Association (APA) drummed home during its March 2010 conference in Washington, D.C.

“There is no one single way to create a psychologically healthy work environment,” keynote speaker David W. Ballard noted during opening remarks March 5. However, the APA’s assistant executive director for marketing and business development pointed out that such environments generally involve practices that fall into five categories:

  • Employee involvement.
  • Health and safety.
  • Employee growth and development.
  • Work/life balance.
  • Employee recognition.

Employee participation in decision-making; programs promoting healthy lifestyle and behavior choices; skills training and leadership development; flexible work arrangements; and marking individual and team milestones are among the practices that contribute to a psychologically healthy workplace, according to the APA.

Creating a psychologically healthy workplace takes a firm commitment and recognizing the internal and external factors that affect the context in which those programs operate. Those factors include the employer’s values, mission and culture; its leadership; its processes; communication channels; the nature of its work; its geographic area; market environment, stakeholders and competitors; management practices; facilities and its readiness for change.

“There are some very healthy, very successful companies that had to … do a lot of very difficult things” during the recession. “The key is how they made those decisions,” Ballard said. “The organizations that did things in a healthy way” and were mindful of all their stakeholders “will emerge positioned to move forward and be successful in the economic recovery.”

A good assessment of employee needs is the place to start in building a psychologically healthy workplace, he said. In addition, he advises organizations to:

  • Tie healthy workplace practices to the company mission, values and goals. Otherwise, these programs will be among the first cut when budgets tighten.
  • Tailor programs to the organization and its employee demographics.
  • Get senior management’s commitment and participation.
  • Involve employees in building and evaluating programs that promote psychologically healthy workplaces.
  • Communicate the programs effectively to employees and evaluate those programs continually to find ways to make improvements.

Employee satisfaction and engagement are not the same, VALTERA senior research fellow Benjamin Schneider pointed out during a session following Ballard’s remarks.

Satisfied employees generally exhibit low absenteeism, low turnover and low substance abuse, but engaged employees go beyond those traits, Schneider said, likening them to focused mountain climbers. Engaged employees are more likely to be proactive and adaptable and to reach beyond their expected roles.

Job design, trust and safety, and treating employees fairly are part of the framework that fosters and sustains engagement, he said. Creating an atmosphere of fairness includes paying attention to the seemingly mundane aspects of work—keeping promises, treating people with respect and providing the resources, training and support that employees need to perform their work.

“You don’t have to have the most engaged workforce that ever existed” but one that is more engaged than your competitor, Schneider pointed out.

The time it takes to create an engaged workforce depends on the existing trust level, he said. If trust is high in the organization, many of the right conditions exist for an engaged workforce; the issue is identifying those that need improvement. If trust is low, the organization must work on fairness, job design and managing the mundane aspects of work.

Schneider cautioned that engagement does not compensate for poor strategic decision-making or for economic downturns, but it can have payoffs even in assembly-line jobs with workers who are adaptable and make proactive suggestions.

The APA recognized five organizations with its 2010 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards:

  • American Cast Iron Pipe Co. in Alabama. Its wellness program is considered cutting edge, especially among manufacturing companies, the APA said. More than 320 workers have quit smoking; 1,200 have begun an exercise program; more than 600 lowered their blood pressure levels to a healthy range.
  • Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare in Florida. Major improvements have occurred in customer relations, operating margin, turnover, productivity, morale and job satisfaction since implementing programs that include a child care center, adult day program, nursing mothers’ room and chaplain’s program.
  • Leaders Bank in Illinois. It credits its wellness program for decreasing sick day use. Employees now use an average of 1.4 sick days annually.
  • Advanced Solutions in British Columbia. It credits various programs with increasing engagement and decreasing voluntary turnover from 7.9 percent in 2008 to 4.1 percent in 2009.
  • Toronto Police Service in Ontario. Providing uniformed employees with improved equipment and training led to a drop in the average number of days lost to workplace injury.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.


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