Imagine one of those days where you arrive at work full of energy and leave feeling completely drained. It’s common for many hard-working employees to reflect on these tough days and say: “This job is killing me.” (Not just crushing their soul, but also causing frustration and exhaustion.) Sadly, many aspects of modern work are slowly killing almost every industry and class of employee.
Of course, the work we do has always killed us to some extent. Back in the 18th century, Bernardino Ramazzini wrote the first book on work-related diseases. He categorized about 70 different professions, and described how to prevent work-related illness among them. This book was broadly cited by great economists like Adam Smith and Karl Marx, and drew a clear link between economic prosperity and worker health.
The decline of industrialization, however, has also dramatically changed this trajectory. Many workers find themselves working in relatively safe environments, yet still report a sense that their work is “killing them”. So, how do employers identify these next generation health risks? One suggestion is to focus less on “occupational exposures” and instead on the “personal health attributes” of their employees. For example, an occupational exposure viewpoint will attempt to make every office chair ergonomic to prevent injuries on the job. A personal health approach would identify vulnerable employee attributes (e.g. workers with chronic pain) and design supports to ensure prevent the onset of injury or disability.
In some cases, it’s frustrating for managers to guess how exactly their work is “killing” their employees. People disagree on the importance and efficacy of many workplace health interventions, so many defer these discussions until there is greater impact of employee health outcomes. Even so, many “employee wellness” events can have negative impacts on employee health. For example, a start-up that frequently buys lunches and snacks for their workers may find that promoting eating at a sedentary job actually lowers productivity… and could increase the risks of developing certain chronic diseases.
3 Ways You are Slowly Killing Your Employees
1 ) Their work is meaningless.
The P-E-R-M-A Model for Psychological Well-being is, perhaps, the best kept secret for a happy and productive workforce. Individuals who score high on P-E-R-M-A factors not only have greater mental well-being, but also improved physical health. And, study after study shows that this is linked to higher levels of on-the-job productivity.
Within the model, people who report happiness (or greater psychological well-being) are said to:
- Achieve things on the job
- Find meaning in their work
- Feel connected & part of the team
- Have moments of feeling “immersed” in work
- Experience positive emotions on the job
From this, you can see the toxic effect that meaningless work has on employees. Your employees know if their are exceptional or disposable, and no amount of recognition will change this gut feeling we all experience. The fact is, exceptional employees need to find meaning from their work. They also require opportunities to lead and create things on the job. Your employees become healthier (and more resilient) when their environment expects great things from them.
The fact is, in today’s tech enabled offices, many jobs are made meaningless by default. People aren’t given a clear explanation for how they fit into larger systems and processes. Most managers also give excuses like “it’s part of the job” when faced with employee resistance to change. When employees lack meaning from their work, they shift into self-preservation mode. Behaviours like resistance to change, bureaucracy (e.g. “make-work” projects), workplace bullying, fatigue and “lagging” performance all come to the forefront. This is why the P-E-R-M-A model presents such a powerful solution to help your employees thrive on the job.
2 ) You create sitting specialists.
Many people confuse workplace wellness with rest time. But, why? Employees who choose to work hard must now sit or stand most of the day, with relatively little interruption in their work. The problem starts in the specialization of work vs. break tasks. Instead of providing your employees with varied work, many managers expect people to choose between non-productive work (e.g. water cooler chats) and productive work (e.g. entering spreadsheet data) in order to preserve their health.
Smart employers don’t create specialists in sitting. They instead design their workplace so that employees have to walk around and take on different types of productive work through the day. For example, an accountant reports low back pain and chronic fatigue that started after taking a new high-stress position in their company. They will often skip lunch and work for 8 hours straight just to get home on time. Recognizing this problem, their manager redistributed some work and asked the employee to lead contract negotiations with financing companies for the firm. Not only did the account increase their workload after only a couple of months, but they also reported an improvement in pain control within a couple of weeks.
3 ) You treat everyone the same.
It is popular for managers (and even worker groups) to insist that every employee has access to the same health resources. For example, everyone gets the same amount of sick time, or the same amount for glasses. It only feels fair to make employee health programs universal.
But, there are limitations to treating everyone’s health as the same at work. First, different roles do not carry the same health risks. For example, the salesperson does not have the same set of health risks as the warehouse supervisor. Different groups of employees typically require customized health and wellness supports. Second, to treat everyone’s health as the same also means that key employees will fall through the cracks. After a heart attack or stroke, the lack of intensive health supports (e.g. generic health & disability insurance) may delay the return of a key employee. Finally, to treat everyone the same also assumes that individual workers have the capacity to manage their own personal health. While this is true to some extent, many employees struggle to balance their personal health against other life priorities.
ADAM HENLEY, RN, BScN, CCHN(C)
Adam Henley is the founder of Consortia Care, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Derby, and an Edmonton-based Registered Nurse.