How to Build a Healthier Work Organization

how to build a healthier work organization

Last week I sat down with Ben Baran and Chris Everett of the Indigo Podcast to talk about health in the workplace. We began by talking about the new field of occupational health psychology that deals with workplace health issues. We also covered what I have learned over the past 40 years about how to build a healthier work organization.

What Is A Healthy Work Organization?

It is natural to think about the health of organizations and of people separately. Managers are generally held accountable for the well-being of their organizations, making sure that their employees are performing well and contributing their share to the bottom line. Managers also know that they need to take care of their people, but that often becomes a different conversation. The healthy work organization idea says that organizational health and people health are not separate. Organizations can only be as healthy as their employees, and factors that create organizational performance also support employee health.

Maximizing organizational health through efficient and effective performance of employees requires that those employees are healthy both physically and psychologically. Employees who experience undue stress at work will be distracted and unable to perform at their best. They may suffer stress-related physical illness. They will be dissatisfied and avoid work as much as they can. They will be likely to quit their jobs. If they work with customers, those customers are likely to pick up on their negative feelings, which can hurt sales.

How to Build a Healthier Work Organization

Many organizations have done a great job in building a healthy work organization. Some have been recognized as best places to work. For example, the American Psychological Association each year names winners of their Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award. Fortune produces an annual list of 100 Best Companies to Work For.

What is it that these companies do right? They begin by caring about their people. They care not just because it contributes to the bottom line. They care because management from top to bottom values people. To be their best, employees need to believe that their managers care about them, and the way to get them to believe is to actually care about them. These managers also care about performance and the bottom line. Healthy people need to work for healthy organizations because those organizations provide many benefits, including job security, resources to be able to thrive, and a sense of pride in working for a successful organization.

Steps To Building a Healthier Work Organization

  • Sound Management. A healthy work organization is well managed. Policies and practices support employee efforts to work effectively and efficiently. They are not overly bureaucratic but allow reasonable flexibility that promotes innovation. Managers do a good job of organizing the work, making expectations clear, and holding employees accountable.
  • Fair Treatment. Employees are treated fairly in dealings with management. Good performance is rewarded, not only materially, but with appreciation and recognition. Poor performance is corrected with constructive feedback and opportunities to build necessary skills. Managers practice transparency about how decisions are made so employees understand the basis for things like assignments, hiring, and promotions. Steps are taken to overcome favoritism and unconscious biases that might result in employees feeling that managers are self-serving and unfair.
  • Empowering Employees. To the extent possible, employees should be given autonomy over how to perform their jobs. It is better to give an assignment and hold employees accountable for results than to micromanage every detail. Allow employees flexibility in when and where they work as long as the job is done well and on time. This flexibility builds trust, reduces manager workload, and can create a better result.
  • Psychologically Safe Workplace Climate. A healthy workplace is one where employees feel safe. This doesn’t just mean safe from having accidents. Employees must be safe from being psychologically mistreated as well. In a psychologically safe workplace, everyone is respected and can be free to express opinions without being attacked. Respectful dialogue and debate is encouraged, as the sharing of disparate ideas can be a way to build trust and can lead to innovation. Building a psychologically safe climate beings at the top with policies and practices, and filters down throughout the organization.
  • WorkNonwork Balance. Employees have lives outside of work that require time and attention. Organizations should not ignore that nonwork demands can compete with work, and those issues need to be managed. This means there should be flexibility so that employees can maintain performance. For example, being flexible with working hours is one of the best ways to support employees with family demands.
  • Proper Staffing. Organizations should maintain an adequate workforce. This means having people who have the right talents, that is the needed KSAOs (Knowledge, Skill, Ability, and Other characteristics) needed to get the job done. Achieving the right KSAO mix requires balancing HR hiring with employee development. Some KSAOs can be selected for in new hires, whereas others are trained over time. This also means having enough people so that employees aren’t overworked. If your people are working well in advance of 40 hours/week, your organization is understaffed and more employee resources should be hired to balance the load. Often organizations complain that they can’t afford more employees, but overworked employees are more expensive than you think. Overwork makes employees less efficient, prone to burnout, more likely to be injured, and more likely to quit. In the long run the organization can be healthier with proper staffing.

A healthy organization is a well-run organization in which managers balance the needs of organizations with the needs of people. It winds up that those needs are compatible as the health of organizations and people and connected. Finding the balance is how to build a healthier work organization.

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