Beyond The Salad Bar: A Psychologically Healthy Workforce

Dec 09, 2017 9 Min Read

The basic tenets of leading a healthy life revolves around getting enough sleep, staying well-hydrated, intake of balanced nutrients and a stable psychological state.

Given that we spend an average of eight hours in the workplace and probably an average of two hours preparing for transition into the workplace, it seems only sensible to extrapolate the concept of health and well-being to the workplace.

Incidentally, health in the workplace has been constantly addressed at various levels:

  1. At a societal policy level, the Luxembourg Declaration on Workplace Health Promotion in the European Union 1997 focuses on integrating efforts of employers, employees and society to improve well-being and health at work.
  2. The declaration covers a set of principles incorporating the work environment, organisational-wide participation and personal development that can be adopted into the organisation’s occupational health and safety services.
  3. The main tenet is that a holistic and structurally-managed focus on health promotes the better health consequences in the workplace.
  4. At an organisational level, McKinsey’s Organisational Health Index is a framework covering nine dimensions that reflect the health of the organisation as a whole particularly in relation to health’s impact on organisational performance.
  5. Some key dimensions such as accountability, leadership and motivation has been shown to be areas of key practices that can protect the health of the organisation leading it to exceptional performance.
  6. At an individual level, workplace health may involve concepts such as hazard reduction, positive relationships, civil behaviour and psychological safety which looks at different aspects of human beings that have an impact on the health of individuals.

Incidentally, this is the focus of the current article particularly on creating a psychologically-healthy workplace; one that goes beyond the salad bar.

While an optimised reward system affords employees the basic needs of life (i.e. food), we need to go beyond providing in-office nutrients such as the now famous Google salad bar and focus on building a healthy psychological state.

On top of societal policies and the organisational framework, I believe the human-to-human relationship in an organisation is a key determinant of individual health and the building blocks of workplace health.

No amount of policies and key practices can be sustained if people in the organisation are not accountable for sustaining their health.

How can people be accountable for their health and of others within the organisation? Five key aspects come to mind: Inspiration, Clarity, Support, Challenge and Contract.

1. Inspiration

As children, dreaming comes naturally. Having a bigger purpose in life has been shown to motivate people which in turn has a positive impact on well-being.

Studies on inspiration have shown that people who feel inspired are more optimistic, have higher self-esteem and perceive themselves to be more competent.

An organisation which is capable of bringing inspiration to their employees leads to better identification with their employees at a personal level. Not only does this assist in aligning employees’ purpose to one that is relevant to the organisation, it also allows the alignment to form in a healthy environment.

This is in stark contrast to an organisation which imposes its vision and mission where compliance may happen; yet, employees do not feel empowered. Not having something to strive for results in a cogs-in-a-wheel environment where employees lack the ambition to be better. This often leads to lower psychological well-being such as boredom and a feeling of helplessness.

Tip No. 1: Rethink the organisation vision and mission; what is the story that is beyond bottom lines? Stories that focus on greater good often identify better with people.

2. Clarity

The question that may arise next is that organisations often have the greatest story; yet, employees feel more burdened than inspired by the story as it is too far-fetched. After all, it is one thing to have a story that one can identify with, it is another thing to have a story that cannot be internalised. This is often the case of a lack of clarity.

Gallup’s research on the top 12 reasons that results in disengagement within individuals in an organisation is not having clarity even in something as simple as their role. We all know that our role in the organisation contributes to the vision, mission and the organisation’s story.

So when there is lack of clarity, it becomes difficult to internalise and this can cause significant levels of stress. This is akin to driving on a road without a divider; we know where we want to go but we are frustrated trying to get to our destination because we do not know if we are on the right road.

Constantly stressed-out employees are definitely not the way to workplace health and well-being.

Tip No.2: How can an organisation bring clarity to its employee especially in an era of uncertainty? Consider what is dynamic vs. what is anchored and ensure this is communicated to employees.

3. Support

On top of communicating with clarity; another tangible way of enabling better well-being in an organisation is to provide support.

There are various ways an organisation can provide this; even basic ideas such as giving them resources that enable their work performance or ensuring that people are in their right role where they can leverage their strengths. Designing roles intentionally and selecting the right people for best fit has been shown to benefit the organisation in terms of productivity and presenteeism.

The added benefit is that the organisation also has employees achieving organisational targets while maintaining a healthy productive climate.
In addition to these basic methods, a stretch target for organisations to continually build psychologically healthy employees is through seeing the employees as individual human beings.

There is continuing effort in the field of organisational psychology to humanise organisations and what this simply means is to see each employee as a whole – personally and professionally. Again, it is rather impossible to see the employee as entirely separate in and out of work.

Leaders who are present with their employees and care for them holistically often see a more motivated and committed workforce as a consequence.

Tip No.3: What support systems are built into the organisation, and are these support systems relevant with what is actually needed? Have quick conversations with employees and note if support is a concern that is being addressed.

4. Challenge

Of course, it is easy to give everything to the employee in the name of support; yet, the organisation may feel taken advantage of when the employee does not reciprocate as expected.

Contradictory to the common notion that support is in opposition with challenge, providing challenges can complement the provision of support and often is best when done in combination.

As humans, a support system provides a safety base for growth but challenges propel one to grow beyond what is comfortable.

Vygotsky’s concept of the “zone of optimal learning” reminds us that the best way for anyone to learn and grow is to be in that sweet spot of being challenged slightly beyond current abilities.

What this means for employees in terms of well-being is that they are being trusted in their potential, and that the organisation believes in them.

Not only does achieving one’s potential result in a healthy self-worth, within an organisational context it also results in feeling valued and more willing to commit to performance.

Tip No.4: Are employees within the zone of optimal learning? Performance reviews and management systems can be designed to capture both current performance and areas of aspiration.

5. Contract

No, we are not referring to the official work contract – that may contribute to the clarity but contract here refers to the psychological contract between organisation and employees.

Denise Rousseau describes psychological contract as beliefs, perceptions and informal obligations between employer and employee.

This can differ across employees as the subconscious expectations and understanding for each individual is different. What this points to, in our effort to building a healthy workforce, is to honour the psychological contract with authenticity and respect. This may mean that promises are not made off the bat, presenting situations as realistically as possible, without withholding information.

While it is easier to frame situations in ways that benefit the organisation, in an era where information is easily obtained, this often misfires.

Moreover, there is always the age-old grapevine in any organisation.

Contradictory information breeds mistrust and anxiety which reduces the psychological well-being of an organisation but authenticity gives space and autonomy for employees to decide. Being given choices is often key in building autonomy and one’s notion of worth.

Tip No.5: Listen to the grapevine and influencers within the organisation; what are the corridor conversations pointing to? While there will always be whining and complaining, when conversations are contradictory to what is being said in the open, it is wise to check in.

Concluding thoughts

Organisational well-being can be a huge concept, but not necessarily an impossible task. It can be addressed at various levels and across different facets.

This article focuses on the psychological facet at an individual level where the act may be small but the impact widespread.

For each of us are individuals, don’t we want a healthy workplace we can belong to?

What about the employee?

For all its worth, psychological well-being in an organisation cannot be the sole responsibility of the employer in creating the right ecosystem.

Employees often benefit from taking proactive steps not only in responding to employer’s efforts but also in preceding these efforts.

For example, organisations often communicate the concept of openness to high-potentials in their organisation to take the active step of making changes.

Unfortunately, this often comes from a higher level which results in the lack of operationalisation.

A case study

However, in one organisation where we executed talent development solutions, the talent who responded to the call to make a change found herself stuck with standard operating procedures and rigid political mindsets.

Her proactive action was to then deviate from usual reporting lines and approach the decision makers directly to propose her idea of automation.

Not only was it received well, it also impacted her and her team’s performance as it significantly reduced errors and time taken to fix mistakes.

Agility and innovation

Rebellion? Maybe to some extent. Agile and innovative? Definitely.

When she shared her story with me, it was obvious that she had a new sense of confidence and self-esteem, having proactively created a pathway that aligned with organisational needs and her personal needs.

She rose to the challenge despite ambiguous clarity and support, creating positive results and boosting her psychological well-being.

Start giving

Thus, for employees, it is worthwhile to remember that giving starts with ourselves and it is something to be reciprocated if we want a positive upward spiral.

Rather than discounting the minimal effort of the organisation to build a healthy workplace, fire up this minimal effort. Do the uncommon thing – give!

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Evelyn Teh comes from a background of consulting for talent management and change management. She is now in a human capital team within a major consultancy firm in Malaysia. She is a huge advocate for diversity in embracing differences rather than getting everyone to be the same kind.

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