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Healthier workplaces a worthy goal for 2012

Calm no matter what

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Happy New Year, and a happy, healthy workplace, too.

That's the message from Graham Lowe, a professor emeritus of sociology from the University of Calgary turned consultant, who believes that 2012 is the time for Canadian organizations to get serious about detoxifying their workplaces.

It's not just a matter of good will, the kind of noble sentiment we summon up at this time of the year and abandon early in January, as we return to our normal obsession with getting things done. It's a matter of performance, since repeated studies show that healthy workplaces are well-performing workplaces and unhealthy workplaces don't live up to potential.

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"It's not just a healthy workplace or a productive workplace – one or the other. They are unified. We need to talk in the same sentence of health and performance. There's a pile of evidence from different disciplines that reach that conclusion – people in health promotion, psychologists on happiness, people who look at safe work cultures, people looking at high-performing work workplaces and lean workplaces. The same conditions get identified – they verge around a healthy, supportive work environment," he said in an interview.

I've heard these appeals for years and by now am somewhat jaundiced, as you might be. Well-intentioned souls like Mr. Lowe fight passionately for healthy workplaces and top executives pay lip service to it in public statements. But it seems more blather than reality, since the reports from the front lines usually are ugly. And even if intent is there, bringing about a healthy workplace is a momentous challenge for large organizations.

But Mr. Lowe notes 2012 will be a special year because voluntary standards being developed for psychologically healthy and safe workplaces are expected to take effect by mid-year. The idea has been championed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and has involved a blue-ribbon panel from industry, labour, government and academe working under the auspices of the Canadian Standards Association. "The vision for a psychologically healthy and safe workplace is one that promotes workers' psychological well being and allows no harm to worker mental health in negligent, reckless or intentional ways," the draft standards, issued this fall, proclaim.

The standards revolve around 13 key workplace factors, such as psychological support, organizational culture, civility and respect, balance and growth and development. Companies that choose to adopt the standards would be expected to develop metrics and strive to improve the health of their organizations.

Mr. Lowe's prescription for healthier workplaces in the new year involve actions that can be taken at different levels of the hierarchy. He starts with senior executives, who will be tested by the momentum that has led to the draft standards, and need to make a visible, tangible commitment to a positive, supportive work environment.

That may have to start by changing their own outlook. "There's a very compelling case on the cost of unhealthy workplaces in terms of absences, presenteeism [attending work while sick] legal costs through union arbitration, and harassment. Those costs are pretty significant," he says.

Mr. Lowe observes that often executives spend their days focused on negatives, deciding how to improve poor situations. But if they turn their focus to the positive – a workplace with creative, engaged employees – those executives will realize the sustaining factors are a healthy workplace. The key to increased performance, he says, is making sure on a daily basis your workplace is psychologically healthy.

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That means senior executives must give supervisors the time and licence – and training – to be supportive of employees. The organization needs to develop clear performance expectations that include whether employees are being supported and working in a healthy atmosphere. That will involve employee surveys asking employees if they are getting regular feedback and working in a positive team environment.

"If a manager destroys a $100,000 piece of equipment, they would be fired. But if a manager by their actions leads a good employee to leave, it's the same thing, since $100,000 might be lost," he says.

He points to EnCana, which in 2003 developed a corporate constitution that included behaviours which were expected in the workplace and those that would not be tolerated, such as unethical behaviour, harassment and environmental, health or safety negligence. That kind of document advises new and existing employees what is expected, and helps to determine promotions. "If someone shouts at a meeting, you are on firmer grounds saying, 'That's not how we do things here,' rather than 'I don't like it,'" he notes.

Implementing plans for a healthy workplace in 2012 will fall to supervisors, the second group that Mr. Lowe addresses with his suggestions for improvement. It starts with developing their people skills: listening, being respectful of and empathetic towards subordinates, communicating clearly and being flexible.

On work-life balance, he suggests, a supportive supervisor is critical. Supervisors have to be willing to give employees time to recharge or to be home with a sick child, knowing that's a healthy approach for everyone concerned and ultimately will lead to better productivity.

He says that along with insurance companies, supervisors play a huge role in getting employees back from sick leave. They must be more trustworthy, not leaping to the conclusion that anyone slow to return is a malingerer. Mr. Lowe points out that some organizations have written sick leave policies that encourage people to take the time they need. In return, that means employees don't call in sick when all they need is an hour to take a parent to the doctor. "I'm not talking theoretically. I have seen this work on many organizations," he says.

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It's 2012, and he says you need a new attitude. A healthy attitude for a healthy (and productive) workplace.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life balance column.

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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