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Psychologically Healthy Workplace Practices for Improving Profitability and Productivity

Save $10,000 per employee in stress costs (US average) by making your organization psychologically healthy.

$300 Billion per year. That is the estimated annual aggregate cost to US businesses due to worker stress (stress leads to absenteeism, lost productivity, accidents, increased healthcare costs, turnover, conflict in the workplace, and presenteeism – being physically present but having your mind on something else). On any given day, nearly one million employees in the US miss work due to stress (pre-recession estimate). These and other compelling data are available from the American Stress Institute website (www.stress.org/job.htm). How can management respond proactively to these challenges?

A set of strategies and self-assessment tools are available to you and your management team free of charge at www.phwa.org, where you can read about unique programs and best practices that have been selected for the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award (PHWA). This is a public service program of the American Psychological Association and the individual US state and Canadian provincial psychological associations. Based on empirical studies focusing on employee satisfaction and productivity, the award program entails five main criteria (practices):

  • Employee Involvement
  • Employee Growth and Development
  • Health and Safety
  • Work/Life Balance
  • Employee Recognition

Communication is Key

To achieve a workplace demonstrating these healthy practices, excellent communication is required. This involves both bottom-up (employee to management) and top-down (management to employees) channels. This makes it possible for the organization to be aware of worker needs, opinions, concerns, and values, and for workers to become aware of services and opportunities available to them as well as the direction the company is going, which reduces uncertainty and increases trust.

Consider instituting a genuine open door policy for employees to provide feedback to management. Communication vehicles may include employee surveys, suggestion boxes, town hall meetings, individual or small group meeting with managers, and an organizational culture that supports open, two-way communication. Your employees are more likely to have creative cost saving ideas, as they are closer to the action than you are, so get their input how they can contribute to achieving your organization’s objectives.

Get Employees Involved

Develop employee committees and task forces to increase worker involvement, input, and commitment. Look for opportunities for participative decision making, such as making choices about the work environment or equipment that staff will use.

Westminster Savings Credit Union of British Columbia insures employee input and participation with its employee survey through an annual review by its survey committee. Focus groups involving management and line staff along with peer liaisons between the committee and each department of the organization ensure two-way communication and that the survey is targeting the issues of greatest to concern to staff. A greater than 85 percent response rate (exceptionally high for surveys) has led to organizational changes in priorities in policies, procedures, and benefits offered based on survey findings, which has further enhanced employee satisfaction and commitment.

Develop Your People

Hire from within when possible and then provide the training and mentoring needed for line staff to become effective at higher levels of responsibility. Consider tuition reimbursement and outside programs for developing worker skills and greater satisfaction from and contribution to their work.

Replacements, Ltd. of North Carolina provides English as a second language classes on-site and compensates employees for 50 percent of the time they participate. Employees have access to courses on stress management, emotional intelligence, diversity training and leadership and nearly 80 others though financial assistance by the company for tuition as well as computer purchases. Executive coaching is made available for senior staff, managers and supervisors quarterly and all members of the leadership team participate in a three day leadership seminar focusing on company leadership models, self-awareness, and the creation of a personal mission statement.

Promote Health and Safety

Have a stress management in-service. Offer classes on weight and smoking reduction. Does your company have a mental health benefit as part of the medical coverage? Stress is frequently associated with hypertension, depression, and obesity. Employees who feel better perform at a higher level.

Leaders Bank of Illinois developed their comprehensive Adapting to Change and Effective Stress Management program partly in response to the severe economic downturn in 2008. This training program helps employees understand human response to change, examining the effects of stress, and learning and practicing techniques for effective coping. Employees are taught methods to identify the early warning signs ofstress and how to implement prevention and stress management interventions. Follow-up care through their EAP is available as well. Each employee group or department has customized workshops designed to meet their specific needs based on job responsibilities and pressures (e.g., dealing directly with clients vs. clerical vs. supply management tasks).

Help Maintain Work/Life Balance

Examine the possibility of flextime and job-sharing. Workers carry childcare, eldercare, and other responsibilities that can affect their focus and effectiveness. Is telecommuting feasible? Can you offer assistance with family demands? Ask your workers where they need support most.

Georgia based accounting firm Porter Keadle Moore, LLP supports the wellbeing of associates and their families by offering flexible scheduling, part-time employment and work-from-home options for parents of school-aged children, employees caring for aging parents, or those with other special circumstances. They even provide home-office technology solutions for associates working from remote sites. During the summer, they close two hours early on Fridays so employees can begin their weekends early. The firm supports a variety of charitable organizations and encourages community volunteer activities.

Acknowledge Accomplishments

Recognize the contributions of your people. Post notices of staff achievements, publish an in-house newsletter, and give out awards. We all need to be noticed and to feel appreciated for what we do, not just financially compensated. Think motivation and loyalty – would you stay at a firm that took the credit for what you do or ignored your efforts?

American Cast Iron Pipe Company of Alabama encourages and recognizes innovation through their Bright Ideas Program in which employees can earn $100 for ideas that are implemented. If financial benefits of those ideas accrue to the company, the employee receives 15 percent of the net savings the first year. Employees are also cited at monthly safety meetings for reporting safety hazards and awarded gift cards, and whole departments with safe working records are given quarterly and annual safety awards. In addition, a company newsletter highlights employee achievements along with significant life events. A trade publication that goes out to the company’s 16,000 potential and actual customers includes articles that recognize employee contributions to company manufactured products that are being used in projects around the world.

Does Your Company Merit Recognition?

All organizations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, public or private sector are eligible to apply for the PHWA program. In Illinois, winners have ranged from a small dedicated social service agency, Omni Youth Services, to a medium industrial firm, Maine Plastics, Inc., to mega corporation Caterpillar, Inc. What distinguishes these firms from others is their commitment to healthy workplace practices and recognition that taking care of their employees makes good business sense (see “Inner Work Life: Understanding the Subtext of Business Performance” by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer in the May 2007 Harvard Business Review for support for this relationship).

Next Steps

Read It’s Your Ship by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff and The 8th Habit by Stephen Covey for ways to empower your staff and demonstrate your commitment to them. Look at the innovative programs that prior winners have instituted on the PHWA website. Get the input of a consulting business psychologist. These professionals specialize in helpingorganizations become psychologically healthier by performing stress audits, promoting employee resilience to stress and change, providing management development and executive coaching, and facilitating an organizational climate that fosters job satisfaction and worker loyalty as well as brings into alignment the corporate culture that exists with the one that is espoused (more information is available at www.div13.org). Save $10,000 per employee in stress costs (US average) by making your organization psychologically healthy.

Steven Rothke, Ph.D. (s-rothke@northwestern.edu) is the Northbrook, Il-based immediate past-president of the Illinois Psychological Association.

About steven e. rothke