Sleep, work and health

January 23rd, 2012

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

December 2nd, 2011

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:

Redesigning workplaces for an aging workforce

May 30th, 2011

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:

Workplace wellness in the executive spotlight

February 7th, 2011

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

December 17th, 2010

 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

September 10th, 2010

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

August 26th, 2010

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

July 23rd, 2010

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

July 12th, 2010

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

June 29th, 2010

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.