Lessons from a decade of progress on workplace mental health in Canada

Canadians have accomplished a lot in the past decade promoting workplace mental health. Reflecting back over ten years of workplace mental health initiatives is cause for celebration. It also provides valuable lessons about how to design initiatives so that more Canadians are able to psychologically flourish in their jobs and workplaces.

Canadian employers, workers and health promotion experts now have access to a well-equipped workplace mental health toolkit, thanks to significant public and private sector initiatives.

Great West Life took early leadership in 2007 by launching the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the WorkplaceThat same year, the federal government established the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), providing a stream of influential research, resources and advocacy for a greater focus on mental health issues.

These early efforts promoted greater awareness and more action.

Guarding Minds @ Work was launched in 2009, offering tools for assessing and improving psychological health and safety in the workplace.

In 2010, Bell Canada launched the Bell Let’s Talk campaign to remove the stigma associated with mental health. Now millions of Canadians are openly discussing mental health issues and many employers use Bell Let’s Talk day as an opportunity for workplace mental health awareness and education.

The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard) was launched in 2013, a joint initiative of the MHCC, Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and the Bureau de normalization du Québec (BNQ). This consensus-based voluntary standard for psychological health and safety is widely recognized as a breakthrough in mental health promotion. The Standard’s resources enable the integration of psychological health and safety within existing occupational health and safety systems, human rights policies and employment standards.

Two recent reports provide in-depth assessments of how far we have come – and the challenges we must consider to make future advances.

The Evolution of Workplace Mental Health in Canada researches this changing landscape using a literature review, a survey and key informant interviews. It documents greater awareness now of how work-related stress, depression and other mental health problems affect workers. The workplace has become a major venue for mental health promotion, supported by many new policies, resources and practices. (Also see: Mary Ann Baynton and Leanne Fournier, The Evolution of Workplace Mental Health in Canada.)

MHCC-sponsored research documents the implementation of the Standard in 40 organizations. These case studies document improvements in the psychological work environment, showing the benefits to workers and employers of meeting the Standard’s requirements.

These two recent studies provide valuable lessons for future workplace mental health initiatives. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Define your organization’s unique business case for improving mental health, including the investments it is prepared to make and the expected benefits, which can go beyond the financial to include alignment with mission and values, staff engagement and well-being, and social responsibility.
  • Adapt resources, such as those provided by the Standard, to your organization’s unique needs, existing programs, policies and practices. In other words, a customized approach to workplace mental health promotion works best.
  • Greater success in implementing the Standard and other psychological health and safety initiatives results when you embed psychological health and safety within your organization’s culture. The absence of a culture of health is a major barrier to progress.
  • Leadership commitment to improvement goals is an essential prerequisite for success, but so too are high levels of commitment at all levels of the organization. A lack of commitment, especially by senior leaders, is a significant barrier to progress.
  • Dedicated resources also are essential if mental health initiatives are to have a measureable impact on staff well-being. The lack of adequate resources is another significant barrier to progress.
  • After identifying the priority actions for your organization, set clear improvement goals and systematically measure improvements, reporting progress widely and engaging management and employees in on-going psychologically healthy and safe improvements.

Six things you can do to create a healthier organization and achieve sustainable success:

  1. Leverage existing HR and employee wellness initiatives to create a more holistic, long-term and integrated approach to workforce wellbeing and performance.
  2. Develop a vibrant workplace vision for your organization, department or work unit and identify how this vision will inspire employees.
  3. Talk about your organization’s culture – the values, beliefs and assumptions that guide day-to-day behaviours at work – and become aware of its influences.
  4. Find opportunities for everyone in the organization to exercise healthy leadership, even if only in small ways.
  5. Design organizational change initiatives to be a healthy experience for employees and managers involved.
  6. Identify how your organization’s social responsibility commitments can be more fully realized through better alignment with internal people practices.

The New Resilience: What It Means for Leaders and Organizations

Resilience is an old concept that is finding new resonance today. Decades ago, psychologists studied the sources of personal resilience among children who overcame significant disadvantages to succeed in school and life. This early research showed that resilience is an individual’s capacity to thrive despite adversity.

Now, the concept of resilience is being applied to leaders and organizations. The Harvard Business Review calls resilience the new leadership skill. A growing number of cities around the world – including Calgary after its 2013 flood – recognize the importance of cultivating resilience within the community and its organizational ecosystem in order to prepare for future disasters. And the need for greater resilience within the workforce was amplified by the 2008-2009 global financial crisis and Great Recession and now in Alberta, plummeting oil prices.

We know that resilience involves psychological traits and personal behaviours that can be learned – a crucial insight for leadership development. Resilient people don’t bounce back; they bounce forward, finding new strength and equilibrium. They move to a new normal that enables them to keep progressing toward a better future. Resilient people don’t just adapt to change, they find opportunities and renewed strength as they confront it.

Furthermore, people need a supportive environment to be resilient. That’s why it is so important for leaders today to cultivate resilience, both personally and among their employees, in order to effectively manage the constant challenges, changes and pressures of organizational life.

Resilient leaders skillfully – and proactively – respond to stressors, learning from failure, develop renewed strengths and show others how it is possible to thrive in the face of adversity. By fostering resilience traits among their employees, resilient leaders set the stage for higher levels of performance, support and well-being. In short, they foster a resilient workforce that is better prepared to deal with the unexpected.

Resilience also can be viewed as an outcome of a psychologically healthy workplace. This is the organizational context needed to cultivate a resilient workforce.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada, in partnership with the Canadian Standards Association, has championed psychologically healthy and safe workplaces. The National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, launched in 2013, provides a guiding framework and resources that employers can use to reduce risks to psychological health, remove the stigma associated with mental health issues, and in general foster employees’ psychological well-being as a route to enhanced organizational performance.

The Standard’s key workplace enablers of psychological health provide the organizational conditions required to foster a more resilient workforce. These workplace factors include:

  • Supportive managers and co-workers
  • A culture that values individuals’ well-being
  • Skilled people leadership
  • Respectful working relationships
  • Support for employee’s personal growth and development
  • The resources needed to manage workloads and job demands
  • Employee involvement in decisions
  • Recognition for contributions
  • The flexibility needed to achieve work-life balance

All these factors are essential for a resilient workforce and a humanly sustainable organization.

Research shows that a manager’s capacity to be resilient is closely associated with a transformational (as opposed to a transactional) leadership style, higher work engagement, and positive well-being. Resilience can be learned and, increasingly, is being incorporated into leadership training. These are the traits that resilient leaders must acquire:

  • A sense of confidence and optimism about the future
  • Knowing how to respond to their own work pressures and helping others do the same
  • The self-care skills needed to look after their own physical and psychological health
  • Emotional intelligence skills that cultivate self-awareness of the impact of their actions and decisions on others and empathy for how others are struggling with change
  • The ability to learn from failures and see these as a source for new strengths
  • And the skills needed to show others how to thrive as they grapple with challenges in their jobs and lives

In sum, resilience is a 21st century organizational survival skill. Any organization can apply the above insights to develop the kind of leaders and workforce it will need to thrive in an uncertain future.

4 questions about better workplaces and my responses

I’m speaking at The Better Workplace Conference 2015 at the Hilton Lac Leamy Conference Centre in Gatineau this October 14 to 16. All speakers have been asked to respond to 4 questions that amplify conference themes.

The questions, and my responses, are below:

  • Q: What do you think is getting in the way of progress towards achieving a positive workplace culture in organizations today?   A: We’ve heard lots about how a lack of leadership, no clear return-on-investment, time-scarcity, organizational silos, or the intangibles of culture being significant barriers. What I think can help break through these barriers is a compelling vision of what a positive culture looks and feels like for your organization, clearly articulated by champions at all levels — not just from the top. This vision expresses the ideal future and gives change agents a rallying point for their efforts.
  • Q: What is the one ‘leadership decision do-over’ you wish you could have that could have impacted your organization in a more positive way?   A: None – I’m a self-employed consultant. But to put a slightly different and positive spin on the question, the one ‘do-again’ decision that shifted my career trajectory was to leave a university professorship for the world of independent consulting. That was 12 years ago. As a result of that decision to leave the confines of a university, I think I have been better able to help others become effective change leaders in their own organizations.
  • Q: What leader do you most admire and why?   A: Innovative collaboration has become a critical survival skill for people and organizations. Cultivating these capabilities requires inspired leadership. I find useful insights on how to do this by listening to  great orchestras. Two favourite examples: Wynton Marsalis (Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra) and Jeanne Lamon (Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra) have inspired groups of talented musicians, all soloists in their own right, to work together to create uniquely beautiful music. The process is an inspired collective effort, with a light touch from the conductor, and no two performances sound exactly alike.
  • Q: Words to live by…for a better workplace?  A: Isadore Sharp, founding CEO of the luxury Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, attributes his corporate success to the pursuit of a simple business philosophy: treat other people how you want to be treated (The Golden Rule). This ethos has made Four Seasons an exceptional place to work and ensures consistently outstanding experiences for guests. Simple, yet so powerful.

Lessons in How Communities Can Promote Healthy Workplace Practices

I’ve just returned from the Vermont Worksite Wellness Conference, held in Burlington, where I had the honour of giving the keynote talk and facilitating a workshop on creating healthier organizations. The conference featured the annual Worksite Wellness Awards, presented by the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. My big take-away is that the State of Vermont has figured out how well-crafted public policy can foster healthier workplaces, businesses and communities.

Vermont was an early leader in promoting healthier workplaces. The Awards are in their twentieth year. Clear signs of progress are that this year, the conference had 430 participants and 92 employers were recognized for excellence in promoting a culture of physical, social, intellectual, emotional and occupational wellbeing.   These employers are small and large, in all sectors of the economy.

What has enabled this success?

First, there is strong leadership from public policy makers. Governor Peter Shumlin told the conference that nothing is more important than empowering employees to be healthy and well at work. Actions to promote worksite wellness are critical to larger healthcare reform goals, he went on to emphasize, particularly reducing the high cost of healthcare in the US. And the Governor made it very clear that Vermont’s success in healthcare reform — it has embraced Obamacare — depends on grass-roots efforts by employees in workplaces around the state.

Second, business leaders also walk the talk. A good example is Don George, President and CEO of Blue Cross Blue and Shield of Vermont, which provides health benefits to about 80 percent of Vermonters. Don received the 2015 Vermont Business Leadership Award for worksite wellness given out at the conference. He and his team have developed a wide range of resources that employers can use to take a more preventative and holistic approach to employee health. As Don pointed out, future progress requires ‘building tighter cultures’ in every organization in the state so that employee wellness and business performance are seen as twined goals.

And third, when political and business leaders show genuine and sustained commitment to achieving worksite health promotion goals, more and more employees get involved. The level of employee-led fitness activities is impressive. So too are other innovative initiatives, helped by modest government support, for workplace gardens and on-site breastfeeding facilities. Above all, the combined impact of these activities spills into the community and everyone benefits.

Mindful Wellness

The Healthy Outcomes Conference, hosted annually by Benefits Canada, is an excellent opportunity to learn what leading Canadian employers are doing to achieve their wellness goals. As conferences go, it is an intimate gathering — only 60 invited participants — so there are many opportunities for discussion and shared learning. I had the pleasure of giving a plenary talk, ‘Maximizing Wellbeing and Performance’, which was based on my recent Wellness Dividend report (which you can download free from www.grahamlowe.ca). I also facilitated an interactive workshop on how to link wellbeing and wellness.

Brenda Bouw has done a great job of summarizing the highlights of the conference, including my plenary talk. You can download this special feature from the September 2014 Benefits Canada issue from the www.grahamlowe.ca homepage.

My point of comparison was the Healthy Outcomes conference 10 years ago in Whistler, where I was invited to give a talk on the business benefits of healthy workplaces. Remarkable progress has been made in Canada on the wellness agenda over the ensuing decade. Most large employers now realize that investments in the health and wellness of their employees is a direct contribution to their organization’s success (small and medium sized employers lag behind in this regard, for a variety of reasons). The 2014 Healthy Outcomes conference documented the innovative steps some leading employers, and benefits providers, have taken to more fully understand and address employee health and wellness needs. Included here would be mining health claims data, the use of incentives, mindfulness training, focusing on getting a good night’s sleep…and more.

And there also are signs that employers are addressing the organizational dimensions of wellbeing. That means more are actually putting into practice the language of ‘healthy organizations’ — which is easier said than done. For example, there is wide recognition that both wellness and engagement goals are important for corporate success. Yet in response to the question “How can managers and HR specialist better engage employees through wellness initiatives?”, there was general agreement during workshop discussions that more needs to be done. Specifically, the interactive workshops I facilitated on this topic identified 3 actions in this regard: break down the silos separating corporate engagement strategies and wellness initiatives; use data from engagement surveys, HR and benefits utilization to paint an integrated picture of organizational health; and empower employee-management committees to make connections across engagement, wellness and OHS areas.

The take-away for conference participants: be ever-mindful of opportunities to enhance wellness goals by challenging the status quo. In short, lead healthy change!

Wellness Dividends: Interview in the Globe & Mail

My Wellness Dividend report has received lots of attention. Good feedback from clients, colleagues and readers in Canada, the US, and beyond. What resonates is the up-dated business case for investing in truly comprehensive wellness interventions, which get at the underlying workplace drivers of wellbeing and performance. Today’s Globe & Mail published an interview with me about the report. The article offers a concise summary of the business case for happy, healthy employees: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/career-advice/life-at-work/the-business-case-for-healthy-happy-employees/article18877107/#dashboard/follows/

Bulling and Mobbing at Work: Looking at the Facts

On November 1st, 2013, WorkSafeBC implemented new policies aimed at preventing bullying and harassment in the workplace. Under BC’s Workers Compensation Act, employers must take reasonable steps to address the hazards posed by bulling and harassment.

I recently participated in a panel discussion on this topic at the 2013 Calgary Labour Arbitration & Policy Conference. I prepared a FACT SHEET on bully and mobbing in the workplace that may be helpful to HR, health and safety, learning and development, and wellness professionals in BC and other provinces as they develop policies and programs to address this destructive behaviours.

Bullying is generalized psychological harassment, which means that it is broader in scope and impact than gender or ethnic/racially-based harassment. It is an extreme form of disrespectful behaviour. Bullying presents a serious workplace health and safety risk and therefore is a liability for employers. Consequently, there is now recognition that employers have a duty to maintain not only a physically safe workplace, but also a psychologically safe work environment. The term “mobbing” refers to psychological aggression or harassment by a group rather than a single person.

Experts agree that organizations must not protect bullies who otherwise perform their job. Some would argue that the only effective solution to systematic bullying is to rid the workplace of the bully.

Workplace bullying can be costly for employers, including costs associated with increased prescription drugs and medical services, lost productivity due to absenteeism and presenteeism, long-term disability, and replacing workers who quit. Victims and observers of bullying also can experience reduced job satisfaction, work energy and engagement, which undermines their job performance.

Increased public awareness about the harmful effects bullying means we are seeing more of it. While Canada lacks reliable national data on the incidence of workplace bullying or mobbing, several large surveys suggest that in any given year, upwards of 1 in 4 employees may be victims of bullying.

Civility and respect are essential for employee mental wellbeing in the workplace. The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) defines a psychologically safe workplace as “One that allows no significant injury to employee mental health in negligent, reckless or intentional ways…and in which every reasonable effort is made to protect the mental health of employees.” Useful practical tools for creating a psychologically healthy and safe work environment are provided by the new voluntary  National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.

To download my Bullying and Mobbing at Work – FACT SHEET click on the title or go to: 




Do leaders matter?

The Better Workplace Conference (Oct 16-18 in Vancouver) posted a blog on its Facebook page by Guatam Mukunda, who suggests that leaders matter less than we may think.

Mukunda offers and important counterpoint to the “great man” (invariably) model of corporate leadership that has prevailed in business literature. But he overstates the case that leaders don’t matter. More accurately, leaders are constrained in their actions. But they still have positional power that, depending on how they use it, can have positive or negative effects on performance, including investor confidence and staff morale. Think of RIM, HP and Yahoo — all companies that should have changed CEOs sooner or selected different people than they did.

His orchestra example also raises interesting implications. Are there leaderless orchestras? Of course, a musical ensemble without a conductor standing at the front has leaders. Each musician leads by knowing, watching, and listening to all the others, and there is an informal leader (or formal in some cases — the concert master of lead violin) who gets them started on a piece. So in the corporate world, how can those with positional leadership foster this sort of orchestral teamwork?

Does Marissa Mayer’s appointment as Yahoo! CEO mark progress for work-life balance?

Marissa Mayer’s appointment last week as the new CEO of Yahoo! is a sign of progress for women in high-tech. A trail-blazer as the first female engineer hired by Google, Mayer now becomes one of Silicon Valley’s corporate leaders. At a time when just 10% to 20% of upper management and corporate board positions in Western nations are filled by women, this is certainly good news. But the terms of her appointment are stirring up controversy. Mayer was hired several months into her pregnancy. And she plans to work during her pregnancy — a commitment no doubt intended to ally concerns of (male) shareholders and business analysts who have roundly criticized Yahoo’s recent decisions (its previous CEO was fired when it was discovered he lied about his credentials). So the issue Mayer’s approach to work-life balance raises is the trade-offs women have to make as they reach the pinnacle of corporate power. Delay your family (she is 37), take minimum time off for child care, and have enough money to hire good help (Mayer’s wealth comes from being one of the early Google employees). But reality is very different for the average working woman with career aspirations. In Canada, there is a rise in human rights complaints related to discrimination against pregnant women. Women still are being illegally fired in this country for being pregnant. And there is clear evidence that work-life balance has become more difficult. This is based on new survey data from Ekos Research Associates, which compares work-life balance in samples of the Canadian working population between 2004 and 2012. By all means, let’s celebrate Mayer’s success but let’s also recognize that it comes with sacrifices that many other women don’t want to make, or can’t make.

Sleep, work and health

Two recent studies shed new light on how sleep and work are linked, with major consequences for worker well-being. Interestingly, these studies take very different perspectives: one is by medical researchers, the other by management researchers. But they agree on one thing: if you don’t get enough quality sleep, your health and possibly that of your co-workers is at risk.

The first study, conducted by researchers at Harvard’s School of Public Health, is a large scale study of type-2 diabetes among women. It adds to other research showing how shift work can increase the risks of cancer and heart disease. In this study, working rotating shifts over several years or more had greatly increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The women studied were nurses, which says something about the unintended human cost of providing 24/7 healthcare, although there are alternatives to rotating shifts.

The second study, from the October 2011 issue of the Academy of Management Journal, looks at the effects of sleep deprivation on workplace deviance. What’s significant is the publication of an article on this topic in a leading management journal, given that sleep has received scant attention from organizational researchers. If you get 6 or fewer hours sleep you are sleep deprived. In this study, sleep deprivation was related to reduced self-control (particularly, being able to regulate your emotions) and increased hostility. As the study’s authors point out, the connection between sleep deprivation and reduced self-control can have serious implications in terms of safety, anti-social behaviours, deviance, and customer service.

Both studies involved groups of nurses, which should encourage healthcare employers to take a much closer look at the implications of work schedules and hours on individuals and teams.


Workplace innovation in the US: New report from IWIN

Earlier this fall I presented at the Innovative Employer Roundtable hosted by University of Kentucky’s Institute for Workplace Innovation (IWIN). IWIN is a unique university-employer think tank. Its new report on healthy organizations offers insights for Canadian employers on how organizational culture can help improve employee health.

Employers today face a host of challenges in human resource management as budgets contract, the workforce ages, health care costs mount and chronic disease becomes a chronic concern. Research reveals that these challenges are interlinked with employee health— presenting vast opportunities for innovative problem-solving strategies. One  strategy that has gained attention in recent years is the push for healthy organizations, where employee health and wellness is integrated into the culture, operations, and business strategy of the organization. Although many employers increasingly understand the opportunities offered by a healthy work environment, many do not know how to begin the transition into actually creating one. The Institute for Workplace Innovation’s new report, Creating Healthy Organizations: Promising Practices in Kentucky examines best practice examples among employers in that region and provides evidence-based tools for developing worksite wellness initiatives.

Sponsors for the research reported include the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, CVS Caremark, and UK HealthCare. This report provides employers with a process to create healthy organizations (through the HealthIntegrated Model) and case studies that illustrate how Kentucky employers are integrating health and wellness into their culture and business processes.

A HealthIntegrated Organization is an organization that strategically integrates employee health and well-being into its culture and business objectives through collaborative and comprehensive initiatives, policies and practices to achieve positive organizational and employee outcomes. A review of the literature and analysis of employer interviews informed the development of the HealthIntegrated Model, which consists of five key dimensions and four essential business processes. This model provides a tool for integrating health into organizations’ culture and operations.

To download the report, go to: http://www.uky.edu/Centers/iwin/index.html

Redesigning workplaces for an aging workforce

In a society that is rapidly aging, the ideal future workplace would be designed to meet the physical and psychological needs of an older workforce. Yet this remains an ideal, with few organizations actively going down this path. Nonetheless, there are prominent examples of what an older-worker friendly workplace would look like.

Perhaps the best-documented case is BMW’s redesigned factory for workers age 50 and older. BMW recognized that the average age of its production workers would increase to 47 by 2017. This demographic trend threatened the company’s competitiveness. Its older workers were absent more and worked harder just to keep up, yet their experience and skills are essential for productivity. ‘Project 2017’, as it is called, recruited a team of 50-plus production workers (supported by engineers and health professionals) to help redesign all aspects of assembly line work to reduce physical strains and the chance of errors. In all, 70 worker-suggested changes were made. Most were simple and inexpensive, such as wood flooring, orthopedic footwear, magnifying lenses, adjustable work tables, large-handled tools, larger fonts on computer screens, rest breaks, and ergonomically optimal job rotation.

Follow-up projects have been launched in other BMW plants. An entire new BMW factory has been built, based on Project 2017 and employing only workers over age 50. Beyond ergonomic design, the company’s goal of retaining older workers is achieved through its approach to training, employee health, knowledge management, and personalized retirement transitions. BMW’s solution for its aging workforce aside, there is little evidence that other employers are ergonomically redesigning jobs and work environments. Interestingly, few award-winning best employers for older workers in the US or Canada focus on ergonomic accommodation.

More common than full-scale work redesign, however, is adjusting HR policies and practices to an aging workforce. Three areas stand out in this regard: recruitment, training and employee relations.

See: Loch, C. H., Sting, F. J., Bauer, N., & Mauermann, H. (2010). How BMW is defusing the demographic time bomb. Harvard Business Review, 99-102. Also see: http://www.impactlab.net/2011/02/19/bmw-opens-new-car-plant-where-the-workforce-is-all-aged-over-50/

Workplace wellness in the executive spotlight

Wellness is in the executive spotlight. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently featured an article on the return on investment from employee wellness programs. While wellness ROI has been well-documented, this evidence has been confined mainly to the health promotion and occupational epidemiology literature. What’s new in the HBR article is less the case that’s being made – wellness pays off – but rather that it is being made in a flagship management publication.

The article draws on case studies of SAS Institute, Johnson & Johnson, Chevron and 7 other organizations, some familiar to workplace health promotion practitioners. The authors’ research generated this definition of workplace wellness: “an organized, employer-sponsored program that is designed to support employees (and, sometimes, their families) as they adopt and sustain behaviors that reduce health risks, improve quality of life, enhance personal effectiveness, and benefit the organization’s bottom line.”  This compact definition neatly combines individual and corporate outcomes, encouraging us to look beyond an individual employee’s health risks and status.

The key ingredient of highly effective wellness programs is their integration within the organization’s overall strategy. One of the 6 pillars of an effective wellness program is leadership at all levels. Interestingly, this is framed as a success factor, not a prerequisite for launching a wellness program. Indeed, the companies in the study introduced wellness programs because “it was the right thing to do”   and they track ROI to be sure that they are making the best use of wellness dollars and being responsive to employees’ needs.

Also evident in the article, at least reading between the lines, is that successful wellness programs are embedded into corporate culture. They contribute to workforce well-being and performance. Employees who feel engaged in wellness program activities are more engaged in their jobs and in the life of the workplace. So it comes as no surprise that companies championing wellness actually are championing their employees. It’s the total cultural experience, not the wellness program, which matters most in the eyes of employees. That’s why SAS Institute was ranked #1 on Fortune magazine’s 2011 list of Best Companies to Work For in America.

See: L. Berry, A. Mirabito, and W. Baun. What’s the hard return on employee wellness programs?” Harvard Business Review, December 2010, pages 104-112.

Making Organizations Humanly Sustainable

 I use the term “sustainable success” to link operational, people, and ethical goals. This revises the “triple bottom line” view of “people, planet, profit” by highlighting how organizations can renew themselves. Basically, organizations need to renew the capabilities of their workforce and they need to renew their relationships with clients and communities.

An organization puts its future success at risk if it burns out employees, runs deficits, alienates clients, acts unethically, and is irresponsible towards the environment. By contrast, organizations that thrive are constantly regenerating their resources. Leaders in such organizations think long-term and holistically. Organizations are like fragile ecosystems. Continued success depends on renewing the fine balance needed between culture, people practices, systems, and structures.

Healthy organizations generate benefits for the communities in which they operate. For example, healthier employees are less likely to use health care services. This has important implications for the public health system and employer-provided health benefit costs. The supportive environment of a healthy organization helps employees enjoy a fulfilling personal and family life. Employees have more time and energy to raise their children, assist their aging parents, and volunteer in community activities that matter to them. The latter surely is relevant to health care organizations given their increasing reliance on community fundraising and volunteers.

Employees now hold employers to higher ethical standards. While corporate social responsibility comes in many forms, what’s needed for “walking the talk” is having a strong connection with human resource goals and practices. Branding an organization as community-minded—essential in health care—signals to prospective employees that it is an employer that cares, treats others well, and reflects their personal values.

Sustainable success also requires employers to cultivate people capabilities for the future. Capability is a person’s actual and potential ability to do something and, at an organizational level, collective capabilities are greater than the sum of individual capabilities. In today’s uncertain economic environment, any organization’s future depends more than ever on its capabilities to adapt, learn, lead, innovate, and be resilient.

How telework can improve performance and wellbeing

Employers have been slow to adopt telework. Only about 5 percent of employees in Canada and the US work at home during regularly scheduled hours at least part of their work week. Corporate lack of enthusiasm for telework reflects the persistence of traditional approaches to organizing work and managing people – despite information technology opening new possibilities for virtual work.

Telework isn’t just another job perk. Companies need to position telework within their workforce engagement strategy, because it has good potential to improve both performance and wellbeing by giving employees greater job control.

There is lots of evidence showing that job control – essentially, being able to make decisions about how and when to work –  is associated with lower stress and better work-life balance. Because job control contributes to wellbeing, it lowers the costs associated with absenteeism, presenteeism, and health benefits. And employees who feel they can manage their job demands are more motivated and committed.

Four changes are required in management thinking and practices to achieve these payoffs.

  1. Managers must trust employees to take full responsibility for work results. No more micro-managing. And employees, for their part, have to step up to the plate and demonstrate they indeed can deliver.
  2. Any type of flexible work option can’t be imposed as a requirement. What’s important is that employees perceive they have these options available and can negotiate their use as required.
  3. Effective virtual work requires a human support system: supervisors and coworkers who provide off-site team members with the information, resources, learning opportunities and other resources required to succeed.
  4. HR professionals who develop telework policies must help employees and their supervisors take the steps needed to manage the potential for blurred boundaries between work and home.

Companies focused on cultivating their human capital recognize that an increasingly effective way to attract, retain, engage and develop talent is through a flexible approach to employment. In other words, success increasingly will depend on equating employees’ autonomy and choice with improved business results. That’s the future of telework.

Better to develop a healthy culture rather than a culture of health

What’s the different between a culture of health and a healthy culture? This is not hair-splitting. Both concepts use the same words – culture, health – but how these words are put together has big implications for employee wellbeing and organizational performance.

A growing number of companies in Canada and the US are reframing their employee health and productivity goals in terms of creating a culture of health. According the July 12th issue of Benefits Canada, a culture of health “encourages employees to be healthy, minimize risk factors and choose appropriate health services.” In short, employers want a healthier workforce and lower health benefit costs – which have always been the business rationale for wellness programs. What’s different now is that the word culture ramps up the responsibility of employees to become fully aware of program options and health plan costs, using this information to make better health-related decisions. Which is fine as far as program cost-effectiveness goes, but it fails to address how corporate culture can help or hinder wellbeing and job performance.

Taking an organizational view of culture is more powerful because it gets at all the ways the shared values and beliefs in an organization contribute to not only employee health, but also support higher levels of performance.

A healthy culture will have higher strategic impact than a culture of health. First, the goals of improved individual wellbeing will be enabled through a shared understanding of the importance of each individual taking responsibility for their overall mental and physical health.

Second, the values that define a healthy culture help everyone to see how healthy employees are a pre-requisite for business success. And third, a healthy culture fosters a commitment from management to ensure that employees have the tools, resources and supports they need to be well and fully productive in their jobs.

Together, these three features of a healthy culture go beyond the popular wellness initiatives found in most large companies. Healthy culture thinking leads to actions by management that will giving employees meaningful input on their work arrangements, job design, and career development – key drivers of wellbeing and performance.

So think carefully about language use. Consider the employee communication and engagement implications of a healthy culture versus a culture of health. And draw your own conclusions about how a healthy culture can benefit your organization.

Five tips for making change healthy and effective

Becoming a healthy organization is both a journey and a destination.  Goals and action plans help, but what’s also needed is careful attention to how you go about change. Here are 5 tips for ensuring that the change process itself is a healthy experience for all involved and, equally important, that intended change goals are actually achieved.

1. Understand change readiness

A basic insight from the field of health promotion is the importance of a person’s readiness to make changes in their health-related attitudes and behaviours. Organizations also can be assessed for their readiness to change in a healthy direction. Develop a checklist of the basic features of the organization and assess each as a source of resistance, readiness, or momentum.

2. Align structure and culture

Organizational change initiatives often fail because structural change is given priority over cultural change.  So if you want your organization to get on or stay on a healthy change trajectory, changes in structures or operational processes must be balanced with the values and other elements of culture.

3. Link people initiatives to the business strategy

Many organizations have too many separate “people” policies and initiatives. If HR champions of these initiatives can’t see how all the strands tie together, line managers surely won’t. Needed is a strategy-focused approach to healthy change that makes it easy for all to see how actions to improve the work environment and employee wellbeing also contribute to business goals.

4. Widen the circle of involvement

Successful change requires collaboration.  Healthy change processes move organizations forward because they provide ever-expanding opportunities for others to become involved. While leadership from the top of the organization is a big plus, employees throughout the organization can become change agents, contributing to making their own work environments healthier.

5. Learn and innovate

Successful implementation of change requires time for ongoing reflection and learning. Furthermore, think of your healthy organization strategy as an innovation – it introduces something new, institutionalizes its use, and diffuses the healthy practices and their supporting values more widely.

Healthy organization change agents need to support each other

Last week, I received some interesting feedback on my book, Creating Healthy Organizations. A reader (I’ll call her Kay) phoned me to follow-up on how to implement the ideas in the book. Kay filtered the book through her own experiences as a customer service manager and former small business owner who personally valued the ideals of a healthy organization.

Kay expressed frustration as a result of feeling isolated as a healthy organization change agent – no doubt a bigger problem for people in small businesses but also true in large organizations because of the multiple silos that exist.

Kay’s experience is that while there indeed are many people scattered throughout workplaces who share the vision of a healthy organization, for all sorts of practical reasons it may be difficult for them to connect and support each other. The result is slower progress toward healthier organizations than if these change agents had been able to share experiences, provide encouragement and learn from each other.  And, of course, a sense of personal isolation.

Prompted by this frustration, Kay asked a simple question: what can change agents do to support each other? We talked about the pros and cons of various approaches. Websites (such as the excellent Employee Engagement Network) can help to foster a virtual network, but don’t quite offer the depth of “roll up your sleeves” problem-solving that’s possible in face-to-face meetings. However, organizing a group of healthy organization change agents in your company or community is not easy. How would you start and who would take responsibility for keeping it going? Furthermore, existing professional groups have their own agendas. Here I think of my local chapter of the BC Human Resources Management Association, which offers an active venue for nuts and bolts HR topics on which practitioners must keep up. In short, neither Kay nor I had the answer to her question.

So for the many healthy organization change agents out there, I have my own question: What would be most helpful to you as an on-going source of networking and support? Surely a first step in this direction is a discussion on this blog, so please let readers know your thoughts.

Linking HR and CSR helps achieve organizational sustainability

A sustainable organization succeeds by renewing and replenishing its human and social capital. Doing this requires closing the gap between rhetoric and practice regarding corporate social responsibility (CSR). One step toward closing the rhetoric-practice gap is to unite HR and CSR.

Critics are right when they assert that CSR without HR is PR. For example, senior executives make time in their schedules to be on the local United Way board or other prominent community charities. The follow-through in terms of HR is when front-line employees know they also can get involved in fund-raising campaigns or other volunteer activities. That’s because the company’s emphasis on community service is reflected in adjustable workloads and flexible work arrangements that enable employees to take time to volunteer.

Also needed is a unified approach to HR and CSR strategies. Strengthening the HR-CSR link requires a transparent, values-based corporate philosophy that is applied rigorously in by all employees in all their working relationships, inside and outside the organization. At the heart of sustainable success is the integrity with which board members, managers and employees apply the organization’s core values in all decisions and actions. Consistency in this regard expands the possibilities for positively shaping the future of your organization – and society.

Because CSR has an external focus, its internal supports often get overlooked. Yet a company’s CSR practices depend on an enabling culture, supported by committed leadership. Equally necessary is how employees themselves contribute to and perceive these CSR practices. When companies showcase their carbon neutral footprint or close monitoring of human rights among third-world contractors, we also need to understand the role employees played in these accomplishments. And when an organization receives an outstanding employer award, we need to determine if this squares with its treatment of external stakeholders. This happens naturally in a culture that values the long-term goals of people, community and environment.

Providing an employee perspective on CSR makes sense, given that workers increasingly want green and responsible employers. A recent on-line poll of young Canadian workers discovered that most would consider leaving their current job for a more environmentally friendly employer. The kinds of companies that will be attractive are moving at an impressive rate to embed human and environmental criteria into how they conduct business and every step in the product or service chain.

It’s time to expand the triple bottom-line view of “people, planet, profits” by including how organizations can renew their human systems. A sustainable organization looks at its success in terms of what’s optimal for all stakeholders.

How healthy is a results-focused work environment?

Last week, I looked at how Capital One has applied the principle of flexible work design. Another company that has adopted flexible work design is Best Buy, a consumer electronics chain. The Best Buy experience raises important questions about whether a focus on results actually gives employees, especially those at the front-lines, more choice, control and meaning in their work.

Best Buy introduced what it calls a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE). ROWE’s premise is that work performance should be measured by results, not by hours and face-time. Employees are empowered to take responsibility for delivering results and figuring out the best ways to do that – a culture shift that requires managers to trust employees to do their work.  ROWE was a major step beyond offering structured flexible work arrangements because employees at any level could regularly change their work times and locations without seeking the permission of a manager. ROWE is team-based, and at team training sessions members explore flexible work options together. ROWE teams believe they are transforming how America works – another powerful motivator, no doubt. This suggests that employees themselves are catalysts for changing the culture and redesigning work.

The impact of ROWE at Best Buy’s head office was evaluated US academics, who compared teams that had implemented ROWE with those that had not over a 6 month period. Results showed that individuals in ROWE teams experienced a range of personal wellbeing benefits. ROWE employees also experienced improved health and wellbeing, as measured by less presenteeism (going to work when sick), less work-life conflict, better and more sleep, more energy, more exercise, and more doctor visits when they were sick. Best Buy benefited from improved organizational commitment, job satisfaction and perceptions of a family-friendly culture.

A second retailer, The Gap, implemented ROWE and documented modest improvements in productivity and quality, reduced turnover, engagement and quality of work-life.

These examples show what is possible, but their direct application to other organizations has limits. Both Best Buy and Capital One have relatively young workforces that embraced innovative work design. Not all employees may be so welcoming of such change, even if the goal is to improve their working life. However, these examples show that healthy outcomes for employees, customers and shareholders can result from simple changes in how work is done.

If your company is considering going down this road, two big issues consider are trust and responsibility. Will managers and front-line supervisors actually trust employees to be more autonomous in their work? And will employees themselves be prepared to take on the additional responsibility that is at the heart of a results-focused work environment?

Designing flexible work for wellbeing and performance

I’ve been looking at examples of companies that apply the principle of flexibility to more than just work arrangements. Moving in this direction is critical for employee quality of work life and business performance. Capital One and Best Buy are two companies that have redesigned work to better achieve performance goals, respond to changing market trends, and meet the needs of their workforce. These firms have crafted conditions for sustainable success by applying the principle of flexible work. I look at Capital One in this blog post and Best Buy in the next.

Capital One Financial Services Corporation, a Fortune 500 company that has received numerous awards for its workplace practices, provides a range of financial products. The company’s collaborative, values-based culture encourages employees to be innovative and independent – and to take ownership of goals.

Capital One’s Future of Work program (FOW) redesigns how work gets done.  FOW leaves behind the standard office workspace, using computer and communication technologies (laptops, Blackberries, VOIP phones, reimbursed home internet access) to enable employees to choose how, when and where to work so they can be most effective. Most of the cubicle space was not being utilized, so facilities were redesigned to reflect preferred work-styles, work activities and team interaction. The goals were increased employee satisfaction, organizational performance, better real estate use and job flexibility. Employee surveys found that FOW increased overall work satisfaction by 41% and a 53% increase in perceived work group productivity.

What’s interesting is how flexible work design optimizes work space and performance goals by giving employees tools and choices for doing their work. To what extent is this empowerment? Does the enabling technology encourage teleworking outside regular business hours? And would this approach be effective with less tech-savvy workers?

If you know employers that have taken a similar approach please comment.

Widening gaps in worker security in the new work world

Last week, I had the privilege of two intense and absolutely fascinating days of discussion at the Institute for Work and Health (IWH). The occasion was the annual meeting of the IWH Scientific Advisory Committee, of which I have been a member for the past 6 years. The IWH is one of the premier workplace health and safety research centres in the world. Located in Toronto, it receives core funding from the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and its numerous research projects are funded by external grants.

Check out its website (www.iwh.on.ca). One of the things the IWH excels at is conducting “systematic reviews” of published research on important occupational safety and health topics, and distilling the findings down to basic lessons for practitioners. My personal favourites are its summaries of participatory ergonomics and effective return to work practices.

One of the key points I took away from the discussions last week with IWH scientists is the growing gap in the worker health and safety protection system. Put simply, existing protections range from workers compensation to employer-provided short and long tern disability coverage. However, these systems were products of an earlier industrial age and are unable to provide adequate protection to the growing number of workers in “non-standard” work arrangements — that is, who do not have a full-time, on-going employment relationship with a single employer. Furthermore, in a knowledge-based service economy, there are fewer workplace risks to physical health and more risks to mental health.  Workers’ compensation rarely covers (for example, in cases of sexual harassment or assaults) time lost due to mental stress. And typically it is only workers in standard jobs with large employers who have access to private disability insurance, which does address mental health issues.

What’s the solution? Clearly there needs to be broader protection, especially for workers who become ill, injured or disabled as a result of their work, but who now are falling between the cracks of the out-dated protection system. What form this protection takes requires careful discussions with stakeholders — just as pension reform is now being addressed in Canada. Fortunately, the discussion about a new occupational health and safety protection system will be informed by an innovative “flagship” research project at the IWH. So stay tuned.

Welcome to my blog on healthy organizations

This is the first post on my new blog. Welcome! You’ll find observations, ideas and practical advice on how to create healthier, more productive and humanly sustainable organizations.

The blog’s launch coincides with the publication of my book, CREATING HEALTHY ORGANIZATIONS. As of last week, it is in bookstores and available from all the major on-line book sellers. I hope the book sparks discussions and actions that lead to workplace improvements that mutually benefit employees, customers and communities.

I was in Toronto last week speaking at the Partners in Prevention conference. People at the session asked some pointed questions. One question gave everyone pause: “What do you do if employees don’t get it?” This is a twist on the frequent comment that senior managers don’t “get” the importance of investing in healthier workplaces. But cynical and resistant employees can be a significant barrier to change too. I suggested that managers who want to move further down a healthy organization pathway, and develop a sense of ownership for this agenda among employees, have to build up trust, and that this takes time.

After the session I did a book signing at the conference bookstore (something I thought only famous novelists did, but anyway…). I was pleased that a few people from the session came by and bought the book, but not for themselves. They bought it for the company library or for their boss. I thought this was quite tactical — a good way to invite others to discuss how to build a healthier organization.

I welcome your comments. Please share with other readers of this blog your efforts to create a healthier, more productive workplace.