Pass the Pasta, Please, and Hold the Stress

Most employees at the headquarters of Carl M. Freeman Cos. participate in family-style free lunches that the company offers to promote a healthy workplace.
Most employees at the headquarters of Carl M. Freeman Cos. participate in family-style free lunches that the company offers to promote a healthy workplace. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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By Beth Baker
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Create a happy, healthy work environment for your employees, and they will be happier, healthier -- and more productive.

That's the economic calculation underpinning the surge of wellness and other employee programs in companies around the United States.

"Organizations are communities of people," said Robert Rosen, chief executive of Healthy Companies International, an Arlington-based management consulting firm, "and if these people are healthy psychologically and physically, if they're committed and engaged in the organization, if they believe in the mission of the company, if they work in an environment where they're challenged and inspired and where the people are valued, the business will be reasonably healthy."

The happy-worker-equals-healthy-company model seems to be paying off. A 15-year review of literature from the fields of psychology, business, medicine, public health, sociology and economics suggests a link between job satisfaction and lower absenteeism, lower turnover and higher performance. Workplaces with employee involvement programs, such as self-managed work teams, demonstrate a 2 to 5 percent increase in productivity. Those with health-promotion programs showed an average of $3.50 savings for every dollar spent, as measured by reduced absenteeism and health-care costs. Others with healthy workplace practices report significant reductions in on-the-job injuries and in work-related stress levels.

And employees appreciate that. "They let you know you're important, and they value your commitment," said Sonja Roberts of her employers, Carl M. Freeman Cos., a developer based in Olney. "They're very open to changes in life and work. They care about you getting your work done, but they also care about you as a person -- and that's real important."

Google -- ranked number one by Fortune magazine in 2007 as the best place to work in the United States, based on a survey of 105,000 employees at 446 companies -- has a team-based culture that fosters creativity and commitment. Not to mention such perks as free gourmet meals, on-site doctors, lap pools and massage chair for employees at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. But a business doesn't have to be as wealthy as Google to promote employee well-being. The most important thing, experts say, is a culture that truly values employees as individuals.

Much of our understanding about psychological health in the workplace stems from research on stress. According to studies cited by the American Institute of Stress, a nonprofit organization based in Yonkers, N.Y., 80 percent of U.S. workers feel stress on the job, and 1 million workers a day fail to show up because of work-related stress. Workplace stress contributes to ailments including neck and hand pain, insomnia and aching eyes.

"When we do public opinion survey research, the most frequently cited source of stress is workplace stress," said Russ Newman, executive director for professional practice for the American Psychological Association.

But reducing stress is just one piece of a workplace environment that is psychologically healthy. "People overall are trying to integrate career success with personal life goals and values," said Douglas LaBier, a business psychologist in Washington. "They want a management culture that promotes teamwork, that's transparent and open, that has a positive workplace culture that is supportive and that provides opportunities for ongoing learning, growth and creative challenge."

Matthew Grawitch, interim director of the Organizational Studies Program at Saint Louis University who conducted the review into workplace satisfaction, identified five categories of practices that contribute to a psychologically healthy workplace:

· Work-life balance. When they are encouraged to turn off their laptops and cellphones on the weekend or offered flex-time to be with their kids, employees have higher job satisfaction and commitment.

· Employee growth and development. When employees are given opportunities for training, developing new skills and applying what they've learned, they have reduced levels of stress and increased motivation.

· Health and safety. Wellness programs such as smoking cessation, weight loss or stress reduction not only have direct health benefits, but also demonstrate to employees that the organization is concerned about their well-being.

· Recognition. Compensation and benefits are the most obvious and important ways to recognize employees, but activities such as employee-of-the-month awards also raise morale and motivation.

· Involvement. Encouraging employee input into decision-making and building strong workplace teams enhance both employee well-being and productivity.

At Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore, which was recognized by the APA for its psychologically healthy workplace practices, employees are surveyed regularly to get their ideas on leadership, teamwork, service and quality, and their input is translated into action plans. Progress is tracked and reported back to the employees.

"They really are listening," said Kim Meadows, a three-year employee who helps with nurse staffing. Management takes problems seriously, she said, and "they don't try to sweep it under the rug." For example, she and others in her office are pushing to upgrade from paper files to a computerized system, and the hospital is responding.

Meadows is also taking advantage of a tuition assistance plan Good Samaritan offers and going back to college. "I feel successful in what I do," she said. "I have been given great opportunities here. I feel I'm part of something -- not just a team, more like family."

Such attitudes are paying off for Good Samaritan: Staff turnover has dropped from nearly 30 percent to 18 percent over four years and the vacancy rate for nurses has been cut by half, according to the hospital. Lawrence Beck, president of Good Samaritan, credits enhanced health and safety programs for reducing the number of worker compensation days by 20 percent.

Good communication -- top-down and bottom-up -- is another hallmark of a healthy workplace, Grawitch said. Freeman, where Sonja Roberts works, has also been recognized by the APA and has instituted a "Lunch Together" program. Four days a week, the chef at corporate headquarters prepares a free lunch, family-style, for any employees (and even their guests) who want to eat together. Most of the 45 employees join in.

"We sit down and talk about work, but more times than not, about personal stuff, things we've read in the news or that are going on in our families," said Roberts, an executive assistant who has worked at Freeman for six years. "It's a great way to bond with your co-workers and experience them on a different level."

Roberts also appreciates that her employer honors a balanced lifestyle. "If I ever need to go on a school field trip for my daughter, there's never any kind of push-back," she said. "You don't feel pressured or stressed." Other employees take time off during the workday to exercise, and they can adjust their time accordingly, she added.

More important than any particular practice, said LaBier, is the culture and philosophy of the organization and how it supports -- or undermines -- individual health, well-being and creativity. He identifies three obstacles to achieving a healthy workplace. "One is abusive management or a bullying culture, or, to a lesser extreme, a non-supportive, manipulative, game-playing management culture," he said. "The second one is boredom, which is rampant in many workplace cultures. This comes from a mismatch from what the person is doing and what they're able to do. The third big problem is relationship conflicts and office politics."

When management doesn't address these problems, he said, recognition plaques and yoga classes aren't going to cut it.

Rosen, whose company has interviewed the chief executives of 300 large corporations in 40 countries, said that creating psychologically healthy environments is a "major movement" in business that has been building for 30 years.

"The smartest CEOs are the ones who understand that by creating a psychologically healthy environment, they come up with better ideas, they service their customers better and they make more money, plain and simple," he said. ·

For more information, visit the American Psychological Association's workplace health Web site,http://www.phwa.org, LaBier's Center for Adult Development,http://www.adultdev.org, and Healthy Companies International, http://www.healthycompanies.com.

Beth Baker is a frequent contributor to the Health section and the author of "Old Age in a New Age -- The Promise of Transformative Nursing Homes" (Vanderbilt University Press). Comments:health@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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