The Psychology of Work

There is a lot an employer can do to maximize employee engagement.

Imagine this: A small-town retail store owner struggling to find responsible, dedicated employees is approached by a key employee who generally is engaged in her job and has tenure. She asks for four weeks off for what in the employer’s mind is minor surgery. The employer, faced with losing a key employee for four weeks and having no one to replace her, tells the employee an absence of four weeks would result in a significant disruption to the business. He turns down her request.

The employee decides to proceed with the surgery. The employee returns to work following successful surgery and resumes full duties and hours. Needless to say, the rapport that once existed between the employee and employer is no longer present.

During the next six months, the employee/employer relationship deteriorates further. Arguments ensue over work assignments and hours of work. The employee becomes disenfranchised and bad mouths her employer. She tells friends and co-workers the owner is trying to fire her. Over time, the employee loses confidence in her ability to do her job and becomes increasingly anxious around her boss. She is written up for poor performance and no longer receives positive performance reviews.

Believing she is on the verge of being fired, she has a nervous breakdown. The employer is told by her attending physician she will be off work indefinitely. As details emerge, the employer learns the primary return- to-work obstacle is the employee’s fear of her boss. The short-term disability claim becomes a long-term disability claim. The employee’s anxiety has grown to the point where she no longer feels capable of entering the store to shop.

Realizing her job options are limited in a small town, she is faced with returning to her pre-disability employer or moving into a new industry, which would result in loss of seniority. She opts for a new career. The employee and the employer lose.

Lessons Learned
What could have been done to avoid this negative outcome? Clearly, the employer’s limited success in hiring employees left him vulnerable. What contingency strategies do you have in place when a key employee requires extended time off work? What lessons could the employer learn from this scenario?

This case study demonstrates that having a proactive disability management program is just part of the puzzle. Employee morale, employee engagement, communication, and synergy between management and staff all contribute to the effectiveness of your disability management program, employee health, absenteeism, and productivity.

For example, if the retail owner had better understood the needs of the employee prior to the lost-time claim, steps could have been taken to ensure the employee’s issues could have been addressed. Ironically, the employer’s limited investment in the employees resulted in limited recruiting success. Proactive management of employee issues will positively affect all aspects of the business, including customer service, attendance management, and business growth.

Consider this: By making human resources management a primary focus, management has more time to think about growing and planning for the future instead of dealing primarily with day-to-day issues, such as shift shortages, hiring issues, or lost-time claims.

Planning for the Future
Here are some issues to consider:

1. Are you a “big picture” thinker? Are you operating in a silo, or do you see how corporate decisions affect all stakeholders? Here are some examples of silo thinking:

Autocratic decision making, where the individual does not take into consideration other departments or employees.

Limited or no communication with other departments to discuss strategies to improve synergy among departments to improve customer experience. Customer service is critical. By developing strategies that will empower your employees to address customer service issues, everyone wins.

2. Do you think in terms of Win/Win or Win/Lose outcomes? In the above scenario, the employer did not support the employee’s request for time off work. He perceived the situation as harmful to himself and his business. In reality, this decision resulted in a significant disruption not only for a month, but indefinitely. The limited communication between the employee and employer resulted in a no-compromise situation. If the employer had discussed the situation with the employee, perhaps she may have returned to work prior to the original request of four weeks. Perhaps some modified work could have been offered to facilitate her recovery.

3. Do you consider your employees’ needs first when making business decisions? The long-term ramifications of not working with your employees can be very time consuming, expensive, and destructive to business growth. Creating an environment that will promote positivism and synergy among all staff, where everyone is working toward what is best for the company and in turn what is best for each employee, can significantly enhance growth opportunities. Conversely, grievances, strikes, and chronic customer service issues result in lack of focus and, eventually, loss of competitiveness.

4. Are your employees engaged? If not, why? Imagine how other employees would perceive the above situation. Would they think time off for personal reasons is frowned upon? Would time off for any personal reasons (e.g. child care issues or stress) be turned down? Will I lose my job? As you can see, when management takes a hard stand on this type of issue, the ripple effect among employees is potentially huge. In this case, the employee asked for time off work for what the employer perceived as minor surgery. How are you judging your employees, and what possible ramifications will result?

5. Do your employees consider a job with your company a stopgap until they get a better offer? While no employee is completely happy 100 percent of the time, it is important for employers to have ongoing and regular communication formally and informally to understand the issues that are dominating employees’ thoughts.

Employees’ productivity is directly proportional to how happy they are performing their job and how supportive their employer is in dealing with non-work-related matters. In this case, it is likely the employee’s productivity dropped dramatically after she was told no time off would be granted for something that was important to her. Chances are, after being angry and frustrated, she was spending more time thinking about securing a new job than focusing on her job responsibilities. The term “presenteeism” is applicable here; it refers to the notion that while an employee is at work physically, emotionally and cognitively she is a million miles away. Presenteeism can result in errors, omissions, and health and safety issues for one or more employees.

6. Do you have communication strategies that you use regularly for two-way communication flow? As stated above, formal and informal communication with all employees is an absolute must. Most employees perceive a trip to the manager’s office as negative. What did I do wrong? How will my co-workers perceive this meeting? Establishing a set time for one-on-one interaction formally or informally will assist in ensuring two-way information flows between employee and supervisor to identify issues while also giving the supervisor the opportunity to reinforce good behavior, which in turn results in a more engaged employee.

7. How do your employees perceive management? Do your employees perceive management as a strength or a weakness? While it is the role of management to make difficult decisions, are those decisions perceived as positive or negative by employees? Are the decisions helping the company to keep and attract new employees, ensure continued growth, and compete with other organizations?

8. Is your hiring process getting you results? Fact: Employee turnover can cost an employer 50 to 200 percent of salary per employee. Leading employers recognize the importance of hiring the right person the first time by developing a comprehensive recruiting strategy that results in very low turnover. Generally speaking, very few employers invest the time and money required to minimize their chances of hiring the wrong person. Today there are numerous services available to screen potential employees (personality testing, work simulation testing, interest testing, physical abilities testing, skills testing, and stress testing) to ensure you make the right decision the first time.

9. Work/Life Balance: More than ever, employees are looking for a company that understands their lives do not start and end at work. By empowering your employees, you give them the opportunity to balance their work lives with their personal lives. Working is an important part of living a happy, successful life. Most employees understand the importance of work in their lives and are reasonable in balancing the needs of their employers with their own needs.

10. Does your corporation offer employee wellness services? Wellness services, simple or complex, are highly valued by employees. As the workforce ages, companies that offer wellness programs (such as onsite immunization clinics, fitness facilities, organized fitness, smoke cessation programs, weight loss programs, at-work activities such as walking clubs, relationship management, financial management, and numerous other wellness-related services) will become employers of choice.

Clearly, there is a lot an employer can do to maximize employee engagement. By implementing some or all of the ideas outlined above that address psychological aspects of work, employers can improve employee/employer relations, which in turn will reduce the time senior management spends on addressing day-to-day issues and increases the time it spends on future growth.

This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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