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close this bookTechnical and Vocational Education and Training in the 21st Century: New Roles and Challenges for Guidance and Counselling (IAC - IAEVG - UNESCO, 2002, 149 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPreface
View the documentIntroduction: Counselling and Guidance: International Perspectives, Hans Hoxte
View the documentChapter 1: Understanding the Context of Technical and Vocational Education and Training - William Borgen, Bryan Hiebert
View the documentChapter 2: Building Community Capacity - Diana Aisensen, Lynne Bezanson, Flo Frank, Phyllis Reardon*
View the documentChapter 3: Career Guidance and Counselling for Lifelong Learning in a Global Economy - Raoul Van Esbroeck
View the documentChapter 4: Basic Education and TVET - Howard B. Esbin, PhD
View the documentChapter 5: Reaching Marginalized People: Linking Skills Training and the World of Work - John Grierson, James Schnurr, Craig Young
View the documentChapter 6: Workplace Wellness and Worker Well-Being - Norman Amundson, Jeff Morley
View the documentChapter 7: Building Positive Work Habits and Attitudes - Mary McMahon, Wendy Patton
View the documentChapter 8: Where to from Here? Guidance and Counselling Connecting with TVET - Bryan Hiebert, William Borgen
View the documentBack Cover

Chapter 6: Workplace Wellness and Worker Well-Being - Norman Amundson, Jeff Morley

Workplace wellness and worker well-being need to be viewed from a systems perspective. While it is possible to discuss each component separately, their real significance derives from the relationship between workplace and worker. In this chapter we look at this relationship, first from the point of view of organizations and then from the point of view of individuals. We then examine programmes devised and efforts made to achieve workplace wellness and worker well-being that apply the findings of North American and European research while bearing in mind that individuals and groups exist in different cultural contexts.

Workplace wellness

We shall start by reflecting on the need for workplace wellness. Going back in time, there are many examples of workplaces where wellness was not much in evidence. In the building of the pyramids one may assume that there was little wellness in the workplace. Even now there is no shortage of sweatshops that have high productivity but place little emphasis on workplace wellness. So why the concern about wellness in the workplace? The answer lies in the changing nature of work.

With the shift towards an information economy, there is an increasing need to go beyond the factory model and create a workplace that is knowledge-driven, with ample room for innovation, flexibility, quality and customer service. Within this context new working arrangements are being developed (Arthur, Inkson & Pringle, 1999). These new arrangements reflect a movement away from hierarchical structures and the disappearance of many traditional boundaries (Feller, 1995). The workplace is also being affected by globalization and a new competitiveness. Work has become more project-driven, and the size of the workforce varies in response to economic demand. This creates new structures in the workplace as many workers are attached to firms for limited periods of time.

The workplace is also being affected by demographic and social trends. For many years the economy functioned with a labour surplus - too many people chasing too few jobs. But we are moving into a new era of worker shortage, especially in areas such as technology, medicine, teaching, policing and the trades. What complicates the situation is that there is not just a need for more workers but for highly skilled workers. Thus, there is an increasing need for TVET and the career paths that result from such training, at a time when in many countries, TVET is not viewed as a desirable option. The number one issue for many human resource departments is the hiring and retention of highly-skilled and valuable employees.

The distribution of resources within companies reflects the increased value attached to certain categories of employees, particularly those in management. Reid (1996) illustrates the growing distance between workers and managers by pointing to some alarming statistics. United States economic data from 1972 indicate that corporate executives made 44 times the income of the average corporate worker. By 1992 this ratio had increased to a stunning 222 to 1. This trend reflects a growing divide between the rich and the poor. With the move toward temporary, part time, and contract workers there are cost savings and also greater income disparities between workers and management. This income disparity will have repercussions on worker morale and worker commitment.

In these conditions, it becomes clear that a new and more dynamic organizational culture is needed and also that there are many weak links in the system. Moses (1997) sees a number of significant problems in the workplace, as many workers can see no meaning in their work and are facing burnout. She describes the pervasive career malaise as follows:

· People feel out of control, unable to make predictions about their future. They see little relationship between what they do and what happens to them.

· Many have no sense of personal satisfaction. They are not finishing work at the level they would like. They feel they are not making a meaningful contribution.

· Their self-confidence has been eroded. They are beginning to question their competence and feel they are losing their “edge”. They worry about the future.

· People are cynical about their employers, and pessimistic about their futures (p. 105).

One of the challenges of identifying division within the workplace is the fact that only a certain amount of dysfunction is visible in the corporate boardroom. Williams & Cooper (1999) indicate that factors such as poor service, difficult working relationships, low morale, poor quality of work, lack of innovation, and poor decision-making are often hidden from view for long periods of time. Factors such as staff turnover, insurance claims, legal claims, workplace accidents and sick leave are easily measured, but managers often fail to appreciate the full extent of organizational deterioration. While organizations are familiar with financial audits to assess their financial well-being, they are less familiar with the need to assess worker well-being. Many of the same principles apply here and the people in the best place to conduct this form of audit are those with a background in career counselling and human relations. As with a financial audit, it is usually helpful to have the assessors come from outside the company.

Worker well-being

It is important to examine the impact of workplace wellness on the worker. Carroll (1996), for example, points out that, as with families, the by-product of dysfunctional groups is dysfunctional group members. The converse is also true: groups that are healthy promote positive attitudes and good mental health. The argument is that in a highly competitive, fast-paced, global work environment there is a need for a healthy workforce that is innovative, productive, flexible and project-committed. There is a need for workers who have sufficient well-being to work not only hard, but also in ways that lead to innovation and quality product development. The dynamic that Carroll (1996) is describing is valid as far as it goes, but there are other elements that also need to be considered. To develop the argument in this way suggests that the influence only operates in one direction. From a systems perspective it is also important to examine the impact of the worker on the workplace. The relationship between workers and their workplace is dynamic and bi-directional and needs to be considered as such.

From the point of view of the worker, it is important to examine what exactly is meant by worker well-being. The World Health Organization and International Labour Office have defined worker health as follows: “The promotion and maintenance of the highest degrees of physical, mental and social well-being of workers in all occupations by prevention of departures from health and controlling risk” (Williams & Cooper, 1999, p. 5). While this definition broadens the notion of health, perhaps it does not go far enough. Williams & Cooper (1999) argue that two other factors need to be included. They are economic health, which does not mean economic wealth but rather having enough to maintain the necessities of life, and environmental health, the need for workplaces to have adequate light, acceptable noise levels, and so on. Another component of health that is receiving increasing attention is spiritual well-being, or the importance of the soul in the workplace (Briskin, 1998; Whyte, 2001). Used in this context, “soul” refers to the need for purpose and meaning in work independently of the pay packet. It is thus clear that health is now being defined in the broadest possible manner, and not just as physical well-being.

A broad definition of health is consistent with the emerging career counselling view that work and personal life have large areas of overlap (Amundson, 1998; Herr, 1999). Briskin (1998) suggests that there is a need to: “build a bridge between the world of the personal, subjective, and even unconscious elements of individual experience and the world of organizations that demand rationality, efficiency, and personal sacrifice. For the individual there is often no clear distinction between these worlds. We are both individuals and members of groups within organizations. We cannot leave behind who we are when we are inside organizations any more than we can shut out the organization when we are alone. We carry inside us all the time both the organization in our mind and the person we think we are. When there is a fit, we sense harmony and balance. When these two worlds collide, however, the individual feels torn and alone” (p. xii).

Conflict between personal and work issues can occur in many different ways. For example, Hobson, Delunas and Kesic (2001), in a national United States study of stressful events, asked respondents to rate the perceived stressfulness of 51 distinct life events. Of the top 10 most stressful life events, none were specifically work-related. Instead, they reflected a number of potent life and family-related events such as death and dying, life-threatening illness, infidelity, divorce, and institutional detention. Despite the fact that there is no direct connection between these events and work, there undoubtedly would be some seepage from personal life into working life. The need for support and assistance is evident in both personal and working life. The authors use these data to call for the development, continuation, and expansion of corporate work/individual life balance programmes. They suggest that efforts by the employer to provide support during stressful periods would be likely to result in efforts on the part of employees to show their appreciation in some appropriate manner. This might result in increased motivation, greater productivity, better attendance, higher commitment, increased loyalty, and so on.

Cultivating a healthy workplace

Workplace wellness is no longer an optional extra: many employers are fast realizing that providing a healthy working environment is something that translates into financial gain for the company. Kalbfleisch & Wosnick (1999) point out that payback for workplace wellness “comes in the form of fewer insurance and workers’ compensation claims, decreased absenteeism, lower turnover and higher productivity” (p. 17). Bearing this in mind many large companies have begun to operate workplace wellness programmes which typically emphasize physical fitness, health screening, counselling, and giving up smoking. These programmes tend to be introduced in large firms and to focus on employees at the upper end of the salary scale (Donaldson & Blanchard, 1995). Little has been done to reach small businesses or employees with lower income levels. Another limitation is the narrow focus of many of the programmes.

Newer strategies for workplace wellness move towards viewing wellness not simply as a programme or combination of programmes for employees, but as an overarching organizational goal. Many organizations are taking an inter-disciplinary approach to promoting organizational health (Adkins, 1999). Operating a business or organization in a manner that nurtures healthy workplaces, as well as meeting organizational goals, may require some systemic change (Emiliani, 1998, Savolainen, 2000, Sugarman, 2001). However, systemic change need not be costly, drastic, or driven from the top down (Beard, 2000; Kennedy, 2001).

One possibility is to view workplaces as eco-systems (Lewin & Regine, 2000). In nature even small changes to an eco-system can have a significant effect on the health of the whole system. Just as one virus can devastate an entire human or animal population, a relatively moderate change in water temperature can have drastic effects on weather patterns, as can be seen in the effects of an El Niño or La Niña. Organizations can also suffer from viruses or toxins. Unresolved conflict, confusing policies, poor communication, or even turbulent change, can have a severely negative or even toxic effect on entire workplaces. Inevitably individual workers come in to contact with such workplace toxins. Frost & Robinson (1999) have documented the heavy and damaging toll workplace toxins can take on workers. If not addressed they can spread like a cancer, in the end crippling a once healthy organization.

However, a healthy and fertile workplace requires more than just purging toxins. The World Health Organization considers that worker health involves promoting the highest degree of physical, mental and social well-being in workers. How can an organization promote workplace wellness? What implications does promoting workplace wellness have for workers and organizations in the new economy? If workplace wellness is not to be just a programme, where should organizations begin?

Common factors in healthy groups

Almost every workplace involves some kind of teamwork. Research in the field of group counselling can be helpful in understanding what factors need to be in place for team members’ experience of work to be positive. Borgen, Pollard, Amundson and Westwood (1989) have identified four factors required for groups to function in a healthy manner: inclusion, control, trust, and support. These same four factors are important for creating a healthy workplace. In terms of workplaces, inclusion means that employees feel a part of the organization, and/or their team. Research has demonstrated the positive and/or negative effects that individuals’ presence or absence can have on group performance (Partington & Harris, 1999). Healthy organizations, managers and employees must recognize the importance of inclusion, and each must work to ensure that every employee feels included if the workplace is to perform with maximum efficiency.

Experiencing a sense of control in the workplace does not mean every worker must be the boss, but that every worker must feel that they can influence their work, and also influence their organization. When people feel they have a say in decisions that affect them, their work, their workplace and their organization, they have a healthy sense of being in control. They feel that they are part of the team. Wanberg & Banas (2000) found that employees’ personal resilience during times of change was affected by: (a) their confidence in their ability to cope with change and (b) their feeling of participation in the decisions regarding the change process. The researchers defined personal resilience as a composite of self-esteem, optimism, and perceived control. Clearly, a healthy and balanced sense of being in control in their workplace enables workers to have more positive experiences at work, even in a context of workplace change.

Trust in the workplace is an issue that may be more complex and important than it seems to be at first glance. The importance of trust in the workplace might best be illustrated by considering the impact a breach of trust has on a relationship. In a marriage, for example, a betrayal of trust such as infidelity can cause irreparable damage. Even if the marriage survives a breach of trust, the healing process may be slow and difficult. Breaches of trust in work relationships may take many forms and can impact an entire workforce. How such breaches are handled can be crucial in the development of a healthy workplace. When breaches of trust are acknowledged, and the parties involved accept responsibility, for example, hope for repair exists. In fact when delicate issues are handled successfully, overall faith in the organization may even increase. Trust is not something that can be ordered or decreed. It develops over time, in the context of meaningful, ongoing relationships. Where trust does not exist, managers tend to exert influence on subordinates in more coercive ways and to be less dependent on employees (Wells & Kipnis, 2001). In return, employees try to put more pressure on managers and interact directly with them less often when they do not trust them. The general conclusion is that employees and managers both suffer when the level of trust is low. As with inclusion and control, a healthy atmosphere of trust in the workplace, at all levels, helps to ensure positive experience of work.

Support also is important in developing a healthy workplace. As with the other factors, support is not uni-directional. Just as workers benefit from the support of managers and the organization that employs them, so managers and the organization benefit from the support of workers. Peer support is also important, and may come from many sources. As sociologist Richard Sennett (1998) points out, if the nature of the work changes, the nature of peer support will also change. For example, the information economy has evolved to the point where even competitors in the high-tech computer field may share information. Thus, in order for organizations to remain healthy, there needs to be multi-level support, which can even include support from competitors, and this support is crucial to a healthy workplace.

Work/family balance

Healthy groups are a result of more than working conditions and counselling groups. For most workers, their family is also very important. In years gone by, the work ethic prevalent in society often resulted in work being more of a priority than family for many people. Many organizations encouraged and even rewarded such “commitment” to the organization, promoting employees who worked over and above their required hours, or giving such employees bonuses. Although, promotions and bonuses are not inherently bad, many organizations are now realizing that promotion and reward systems can be counter-productive if they encourage behaviour that results in workers sacrificing their family to their career.

Today many organizations are realizing that workers who achieve a healthy family/work balance are healthier, more satisfied, and more likely to remain with the organization (Burke, 2001). In one large organization it was found that managers who achieved a better balance between their professional and personal lives were able to work fewer hours while maintaining productivity (Munck, 2001). Munck also found that managers with a better balance between their work and personal lives maintained a high level of customer service, with little or no impact on the company’s financial bottom line. In today’s economy productive workers are becoming a scarce resource, and organizations that promote work/family balance are becoming increasingly attractive to employees, especially those whose family make greater demands, such as employees who are parents, or caring for an en elderly parent. Scharlach (2001) documented the strain experienced by working parents, and explored factors that could increase or decrease the felt level of strain. Scharlach found that having children under 6 years of age, a more demanding job, less satisfactory childcare arrangements and less workplace support all contributed to higher levels of stress. Disappointingly, Scharlach found that workplace programmes such as Dependent Care Accounts, Child Care Resource Guides, Parent Information Fairs, and adjusted work schedules did not significantly impact levels of work/family interference. This research affirms the need for individuals, researchers and organizations to explore positive options for employees with family responsibilities in order to reduce role conflicts in an effort to create healthy workplaces that also make for healthy workers - both while they are at work and in other areas of their lives.

Benefits of workplace wellness

The new economy is making recruiting and retaining valued employees more and more of a challenge (Sennett, 1998). Not only is the economy evolving, but demographics are changing (US Department of Labor, 2002) along with values. Two interesting groups at opposing ends of the spectrum in the new economy are young first-time workers (often referred to as Generation X), and older workers (often referred to as Baby Boomers). Although both Generation Xers and Baby Boomers are competing in the current labour market, it has been found that the two groups apply different values, as well as shared values, to determine what they want from employment (Jurkiewicz, 2000).

Culturally, it could be argued that young people entering the workforce for the first time have been raised in a society quite different from that of their parents. Unlike their parents who might have expected to be able to remain in that first job until retirement, new workers have come to expect to have several jobs over their working life, if not several different careers. This expectation has implications for younger workers’ sense of what it means to make a commitment to an employer and/or to work as a part of a team. Karp and Sirias (2001) found that Generation Xers were actually more team-oriented than Baby Boomers, despite being more individualistic.

As organizations employ groups of workers from the whole age range, they are now faced with the challenge of creating team environments in which different generations can work happily side by side. Having witnessed the excesses of the preceding generation, with its hard-driving work ethic, younger workers are increasingly drawn to organizations that value healthy workplaces and a healthy work/family balance. Young workers do not necessarily expect to remain with the same company for their entire lives, so if they perceive an organization as toxic, they are more likely to seek employment elsewhere. In the new economy highly-skilled workers are quite likely to find alternative employment. Similarly, older workers, including perhaps workers who have retired from their first careers, are increasingly sought after by organizations for their expertise, experience and wisdom. Many workers in this situation are not money-driven or wanting to work excessive hours to get ahead. These workers like to feel appreciated. They like to feel that they, and their work, matter.

Amundson (1996) has documented the significance of feeling that one matters in the workplace, suggesting that this feeling meets basic relationship needs, including the need to find meaning in life. He states, “Through mattering, interpersonal connections are restored, with positive implications for self-esteem and self-validation” (p. 45). People want, and can choose, workplaces that are healthy and balanced: workplaces that match their lifestyle. Workers both young and old are seeking meaning in their careers. Workers both young and old will be increasingly drawn to healthy workplaces where they will not only survive, but thrive. Healthy workplaces are the fertile ground that enables organizations to nurture workers, while themselves growing strong and flourishing in the new economy.


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