IS YOUR WORKPLACE REALLY A GREAT PLACE TO WORK?
AN EMPATHIA REPORT
Is your organization a “great place to work”? If it truly is, the reasons may have less to
do with your employer-sponsored benefits and physical working conditions and far more
to do with the often unspoken rules that shape interpersonal behaviors among staff
If your organization is as successful as it could be, it probably ranks high in certain
dimensions of workplace culture, including:
However, traditionally, workplace culture has been viewed as something that just
happens. Only rarely is it deliberately sculpted to integrate with an overall strategy for
organizational success—but experts maintain that it always should be integrated. As
business thought leader Peter Drucker reminds us, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Without a strong and persistent focus on workplace culture, technical acumen and
business expertise alone will not win the prize.
Numerous studies demonstrate that group behavior and social norms (i.e., workplace
culture) have a broad impact on how people treat each other, as well as on creativity,
innovation and productivity. Further, a 2008 study by the Robert Wood Johnson
Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America compiled data that reflected how
our workplaces affect our health. It reported that high levels of social support at work
have protective effects on mental well-being and are linked with reduced risk of illness-related
absence. What’s more, low levels of social support are linked with an increased
risk of psychiatric disorders. The same study also reported on how health is affected by
“organizational justice”—the processes and relationships within the workplace. Their
research found that employees had poorer health, higher morbidity and increased
mental health problems when supervisors were not transparent and failed to treat
them with respect and fairness.
HOW DOES THE U.S. RANK WITH THE REST OF THE WORLD?
So how does the U.S. rank in terms of workplace culture among other industrialized
nations? Surprisingly low and trends show the problem is widespread. The U.S. has
established a reputation for what is commonly called “workaholism.” According to a 2011
Mercer report, the U.S. offers one of the least generous holiday entitlements among
industrialized nations; compared against over 60 nations surveyed, U.S. employees
simply don’t receive much time off work. A recent Wall Street Journal article, Subsidy as
a Way of Life, by James Glassman, notes that the average American works more than
400 more hours per year than a German and 300 hours more than a Frenchman. On
average, that represents a staggering 7.5 to 10 more weeks on the job. Also, American
workers fail to use almost 450 million earned vacation days each year, about a $67
billion benefit left on the table. Why? The cultural norms that permeate most U.S.
workplaces undervalue healthy lifestyles and work habits, work/life balance and the
restorative payoffs of so-called downtime.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many organizations reward employees who work
excessive hours, fail to take vacation and blur the lines between work and personal life.
While these work habits may provide short-term gains in productivity, the resulting stress
and related physical and mental health problems eventually erode performance. What’s
more, many workplaces emphasize individual rather than team performance, sometimes
pitting co-workers against each other rather than rewarding the collective
accomplishments of a shared effort.
Surely, all this work must lead to higher productivity in the American workplace, right?
Unfortunately, it does not. According to the World Economic Global Competitiveness
Index 2012-2013, the productivity of U.S. businesses has been in decline for several
years and has now slipped to 7th place. Countries such as Switzerland, Finland,
Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany, which have much more liberal vacation
policies, now rank higher in terms of productivity and competitiveness.
How is it that Americans are working longer and harder than ever but with fewer returns?
There are multiple contributing factors but primary among these is workplace culture.
Those that embrace a “lean and mean” workplace approach, even unwittingly, usually
see their short-term productivity gains evaporate as employees become increasingly
stressed, unhealthy and burned out. And while competition can force enterprises to do
more with less, a humanistic workplace culture can ameliorate some of the negative
impacts of over-work. It takes the “mean” out of “lean and mean.”
In a nutshell, the strategies that once catapulted us to a position of wealth and economic
glory will not likely take us to the next step in a global marketplace or increase our
competitiveness among other industrialized nations. Our workplace culture has hit a
tipping point—a point of diminishing returns.
Unfortunately, for many U.S. organizations, workplace culture and employee well-being
aren’t even on the radar. According to a 2010 report from Buck Consultants (Working
Well—A Global Survey of Health Promotion and Workplace Wellness Strategies),
the United States is the only major region in the world that fails to place a priority on
improving workforce morale and engagement. All other regions, including Africa, Asia,
Australia, Canada, Europe and Latin America, tend to include these cultural goals
in their wellness programs and overall business strategies. In contrast, most U.S.
businesses ranked their priorities as restraining health care and insurance costs,
improving productivity, and reducing presenteeism and absenteeism, in that order.
According to Carol Wilson, Senior Vice President and COO of Empathia, “Organizations
know this is a problem but nobody wants to look at the elephant in the room.” Why not?
In part because leaders aren’t sure how to make the paradigm shift from a culture
focused solely on mastering tasks to one that optimizes its human resources.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
“Workplace culture can be changed and optimized, and with a surprisingly modest
investment of time and resources,” says Philip Chard, President and CEO of Empathia.
“We know how to do it, so what is often lacking is the will to make it happen.” As is true
in many business efforts, the first step is to measure, to determine the present state of
one’s workplace culture. Once gaps or issues are identified, attainable goals can be
formulated. Subsequently, initiatives that will positively shape the cultural milieu are
designed and implemented. After a reasonable period of time, further measurement
will indicate progress and, if necessary, point to additional adjustments in the strategy.
“In our experience, when organizations realize they have cultural issues that are
undermining success, they often turn to training, hoping that will change individual and
collective behavior,” Chard maintains. These programs often promote respect in the
workplace, appreciation for diversity, conflict resolution and other behavioral goals.
While technical training can effectively instill new skills, a similar approach rarely
influences overall workplace culture—how people treat each other. In general,
information does not change behavior. Experiences do.
“Improving workplace culture shouldn’t be reserved just for organizations with obvious
issues. It can also help well performing businesses progress to their full potential,”
Carol Wilson says.
An Empathia client company, Cleaver-Brooks, did just that. “The primary factor in
assessing our culture was a desire to obtain a current, objective evaluation of what our
employees were thinking about the company culture as it related to working conditions,
supervision, employee/management interaction and other factors related to employee
satisfaction,” says Dennis Hettinger, Corporate Human Resources Director.
“The first step to molding your culture is getting a good snapshot of where you are
now,” says Jennifer Rebarchik, manager of Empathia’s culture optimization program,
Culture1st. Hettinger agrees: “The survey provided a starting point from which we can
assess, over a period of time, employee satisfaction with company programs and
policies, as well as general working conditions.”
“The survey can be repeated over time to determine how key behavioral dimensions
are changing within the organization,” Rebarchik says. In striving to optimize culture,
working with an external partner provides an outside perspective that is difficult to
achieve while “inside the fishbowl.” Using a validated assessment instrument in tandem
with the expertise of culture consultants can afford an accurate and actionable strategy.
While some organizations apply the assessment process to solve work group or team
issues, others find it particularly useful after undergoing significant change such as a
merger or acquisition, layoffs, the appointment of a new CEO, etc. The assessment
identifies points for intervention and establishes a baseline for measuring progress.
“Employees become more engaged because they can see the organization is taking
action to improve the interpersonal environment,” says Rebarchik.
Sometimes just going through the assessment process begins changing behavior. “It
becomes a living conversation within the organization,” says Rebarchik. “It generates a
certain buzz by raising awareness of the social norms that drive behavior, which usually
operate outside of people’s awareness.”
Of course, there is a risk. If the assessment process does not result in visible initiatives
directed at optimizing culture, employees become cynical. That’s where leaders come
in. “Leadership is critical in making the commitment and owning the process,“ says
Philip Chard. “It is a top-down flow, so leadership is key in making certain that cultural
awareness resonates through all levels of the organization, from C-suite to broom
closet,” Chard insists.
Once an organization’s leaders recognize that the behavioral culture is as important to
success as are resources, work processes, marketing and the rest, the commitment is
forthcoming. “Culture optimization needs to become part of the business strategy, just
as is safety in a manufacturing or transportation environment,” Rebarchik claims.
Organizations that integrate culture optimization into their business strategies are more
likely to position themselves for success. In most instances, what is good for your people
ultimately proves good for your business.
Empathia provides individual and organizational services that maximize well-being, safety,
and productivity in the workplace. In addition to being widely recognized as a thought
leader within their industry, they have customized highly successful behavioral health and
emergency management programs for some of the most recognizable companies in the
world. Empathia’s wide range of modular services include workplace culture improvement,
behavior change and EAP programs, leader development and emergency response and plan
development. For more information, visit www.empathia.com.