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Prescription for health: Organizations need a checkup

Even as many Canadian companies were decimating staffs and hacking away at their operations to survive the recession, most maintained their worker wellness programs and many actually beefed up their employee assistance programs, according to organizational consultant Graham Lowe.

And he sees a great lesson in this for leaders.

'They know they need to keep their employees healthy, because they need all their capabilities coming out of the recession. But many have not applied the same thinking and effort toward maintaining their organization's long-term health," says Mr. Lowe, president of Graham Lowe Group Inc. in Kelowna, B.C.

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In his new book, Creating Healthy Organizations: How Vibrant Workplaces Inspire Employees to Achieve Sustainable Success, he writes his prescription for how leaders can restore workplace well-being.

How has the current economy made workplaces less healthy?

When we talk about healthy people, we use words such as vigorous, robust, thriving, resilient and fit. Those same words should also describe healthy organizations.

But in many organizations, long-term health has received little attention lately because the focus has been on immediate survival and creating immediate results with reduced work forces. Managers have lost sight of the importance of doing regular check-ups to simply ask: How healthy and sustainable is the organization? If you are not able to provide a work environment that is healthy and supportive of performance, you overload people and end up burning them out, which makes them less creative and less productive. And because the work force is aging, that is going to mean you will have more turnover and people dragging themselves in to work and not contributing.

Why should workplace health become everyone's priority?

For employees, benefits come in terms of overall health and wellness, better work/life balance, professional development and personal growth. For the organization, the benefits are greater financial performance, operating efficiency, reduced human capital risks and costs and future sustainability. And there are social benefits as well. The organization is reducing the burden on publicly funded health care and developing ways of thinking that individual employees can carry into their personal, family and community activities

What are the elements that need to be monitored in a healthy workplace checkup?

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In my consulting with organizations large and small, I've identified several key factors that contribute to making a workplace healthy and sustainable. They are:

  • Inspiring work: Employees have the autonomy to direct their own work, which they find both challenging and meaningful, and they have the opportunities to learn and develop and know how their work fits in and makes a difference.
  • Strong relationships: Mutual respect characterizes the working relationships among co-workers and between employees and managers. People trust each other and are committed to a shared vision and mission. This creates a sense of belonging because the workplace is a community.
  • Collaboration: The work is based on teams and co-operation.
  • Communication: There is a premium on two-way communication throughout the organization. Employees have meaningful input into decisions affecting them, and their contributions are valued and recognized by management.
  • Supports: Supervisors encourage employees to succeed in their jobs and develop their talents. Employees have adequate facilities, equipment, tools and other resources they need to do their job well.


How do you do assess organizational health?

Involving employees in making the organization healthier is vital to the process. A lot of organizations still do things from the top down. If you get both employees and management involved in the analysis, you create a consensus of shared goals and answers.

Start by asking employees what's missing in their work lives and what kinds of things, such as communication, teamwork or recognition that they see as good, and what they believe need to be improved. Ask employees how their work pressures are mounting and about their aspirations and how they think managers could enable them to meet their goals. The input can come from opinion surveys, focus groups, town hall meetings or individual discussions with employees.

The things that come out may be as basic as a desire for more feedback from supervisors, but it indicates gaps that managers should become more conscious about. On-going follow up surveys should assess how well they are doing in meeting employee concerns.

In this way, employees feel that they have a stake in the outcome. An excellent work environment becomes a part of their personal vision. It gives them a feeling that they play a role making the organization healthy and, just as importantly, it gives employees optimism that there is a future, because they are part of planning it.

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Does this mean creating a healthy workplace committee?

In most cases, this doesn't require setting up a new committee or program, but merely starting to ask questions and leverage what already exists in the organization.

Most organizations already have programs and committees in place that address many of these issues but they often don't talk with one another. For instance, there may be a wellness committee, a talent management program and a health and safety committee and, when you get them together to discuss what they do, you may find that they are looking at many of the same work force and performance issues. The wellness program may be addressing employee stress, while the talent management policies may be a reason stress is increasing.

By getting people who are running those initiatives together in the same room, they can invariably find many points where they can join forces. It's like having pieces of a puzzle scattered on a table top. It takes work to find ways to make them fit together but the effort can create more value for the organization by helping people work better, happier and more productively.

Do you think most organizations can become healthier?

There's no formal research, but it's my sense from my consulting work that the large majority of Canadian organizations have nothing really broken but do want to become better and manage people better.

Senior management should be motivated to initiate an organizational health review. Coming out of the recession, organizations are looking for ways to be more effective, and this is a big way to be more effective and more healthy in the process.



Doctor's orders

Building a healthy organization should be an ongoing process. Here are tips from Graham Lowe, author of Creating Healthy Organizations .

Managers

Talk about values

At management meetings, include on the agenda a discussion about how well your existing corporate values support high performance.

Apply people skills

Make a conscious effort to engage in two-way communication with employees, give constructive feedback, show respect and understand job needs

Involve employees

Tap into employee expertise, giving front-line employees opportunities, incentives and recognition for suggesting better ways to meet client needs.

Look for multiple wins

Managers who help overloaded employees set clearer priorities or streamline work processes will reduce employee stress and improve productivity at the same time.

Employees

Prod communication

At team meetings and discussions with managers, point out how better communication and collaboration can lead to better results.

Craft a team vision

Discuss with co-workers what they can do to contribute to each others' wellbeing, improve the work environment and enhance team performance.

Build bridges

Communicate with other groups working on related issues to see if you can co-ordinate a more effective approach.

Take it outside

Apply the focus on team work and quality improvement equally to clients and customer service.

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About the Author

Wallace Immen is an award-winning staff writer for The Globe and Mail whose stories about workplace trends and career advice, as well as about cruising and travel destinations around the world appear regularly in print and on-line. He has worn many hats in his career with the Globe, including science writer, medical writer and columnist, urban affairs reporter and travel writer. More

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