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Happy "Health at Work" Day

The International Labor Organization (ILO) started observing the World Day for Safety and Health at Work on April 28, 2003. The ILO is devoted to advancing opportunities for people to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. It aims to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, boost social protection, and strengthen dialogue on work-related issues.

This is so relevant today. Because we need healthier workplaces desperately. Human dignity at work. What a great concept. As someone who worked at some of the best companies and experienced health issues because of the pressures and stress at work, I hope this day and its mission gets more attention.

I am just reading Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer which was the missing piece in my library of books about creating good work environments. He has so many relevant research and data in this book, there is no way I can do justice by summarizing it here. You have to pick it up and read it. I just want to highlight the most crucial points though since I feel this is a very important topic too.

First of all, my husband and I both witnessed and had to go through some tough times at work. I became sick and had an ulcer at my job because I was in so much conflict with some of my values and also from the pressure of quarterly quotas. I was feeling guilty if I left work on time or had to leave when my son was sick. I was expected to bring only my professional self and leave my personal life at the door. Also, act like a man since it was a men’s world. All these things have a toll on our bodies. I would learn this over time. My physical illness was certainly a big factor in my decision to leave.

At another job they promoted me twice because I had amazing ideas and then they did not let me implement them. They criticized me because I spend time with salespeople who were my “clients” at the time. I saw people who gave their lives to this company being laid off in 5 minutes. No appreciation, no respect. Definitely no dignity. I also saw people who are left behind were miserable too. Maybe that day they were happy not to be kicked out, not so motivated in the long run. You cannot help but think, am I next? The anxiety keeps creeping in. How will I pay my bills if that happens? Can I find another job? That cannot make you a very productive and engaged employee.

I never forget when my husband came back from work telling me “it is so much easier to get rid of people here; they just leave in 5 minutes when they get laid off. It is so much harder to get rid of the desks and chairs in the office.” Sad but it is so true.

The book also talks about the cost of layoffs for everyone; for the people the most but even for the company.

One of my most favorite companies I always talk about, Southwest comes into play here again. After 9/11 the book says, all major airlines laid off people; 80,000 of them in total. It is so much the norm: business is bad; lay off people. Only Southwest did not. Willingly and intentionally. You all know the rest of the story. They never lost money or any employee going through tough times like post 9/11 and also the recent recession. So maybe we assume layoff is the only way.

“The problem struggling companies face is nor excessive costs but instead insufficient revenues.”

Who makes the decisions at big bureaucratic companies? Always the top executives. Could it be their bad decisions which cause all the problems and not having enough revenue? Who pays the price? The ones who were never invited to make the decisions. The book also gives examples of CEO’s being paid even higher after a massive layoff.

WebMD and American Psychological Association both found number one (or two) reason for stress, which in turn causes so many health problems, is work.

The author says it is amazing that many corporations now offer wellness programs that teach people how to stay healthy, eat healthy, exercise, stay away from drugs, while bad management, poor treatment of the their biggest asset, and toxic environments are actually the underlying cause of all the stress in the first place. It looks like, if we cared enough about people as they are our family, the wellness programs would not be even needed.

“You cannot expect people to adopt healthy lifestyles when their work environments reinforce or even cause poor habits.”

Not enough people question that. “The sad part,” he says, “even as organizations of all kinds permit management practices that literally sicken and kill their employees, these same employers also suffer because it does not improve profitability or performance.” So it is really a lose-lose.

In his research, Jeffrey Pfeffer and his graduate students, he finds out that workplace environments in the US may be responsible for 120,000 deaths per year, which would make it the #5 leading cause of death. He lists 10 workplace conditions that contribute to this health crisis.

Then he talks about human sustainability. I love the phrase. We all care about environmental sustainability but we never hear about how to keep people healthy at work without suffering a burnout.

We stopped questioning the most important things at work from command control to micromanagement, to working 10-12 hours a day because when we look around everybody is doing it. It is not only in the US either. It is everywhere. That does not make this right though. We just accepted this as part of “work”. Well if enough people pay attention to this together with governments and organizations like ILO and UN, we will realize this cannot go for too long.

I am in this work of creating great environments and shining a light on the best examples because I have seen enough horror stories of people around me and of my clients. It is insane that we accepted so many people suffering at a place where they spend most of their waking hours.

Does it have to be like this?

No. We already mentioned Southwest. Patagonia, SEMCO, WD-40, Virgin are only some that I continue to write about. I love the example Jeffrey Pfeffer gives in his book about Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller. He says “Chapman decided that the goal of the company should be to send people home fulfilled at the end of the day.” What a wonderful purpose he has. I highly recommend you watch and listen to Bob Chapman’s story. Brilliant and very humane.

There is a lot of other valuable information in the book. I hope this book and others shed a light in this crisis so that all of us can do our parts in reversing this. As all the bad practices of the workplace, we accepted for more than 150+ years all the inhumane behaviors workplace that has such a cost in all societies.

Being among amazing people who want to make a positive impact in all kinds of organizations and the fact that we at least started talking about these gives me a lot of hope for Future of Work.

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