Workplace health is one important indicator of organizational performance — as a society’s success cannot be separated from the quality of its members’ lives. In his brand new book Dying For A Paycheck, Jeffrey Pfeffer exposes exactly why our workplaces are so toxic and what humans need instead.
“You are the cause of the healthcare crisis because 74% of all illnesses are chronic. The biggest cause of chronic illness is stress, and the biggest cause of stress is work.”
— Global manufacturer Barry-Wehmiller CEO Bob Chapman to a room of CEOs
We have environmental regulations to limit environmental risks — but what about employee well-being? We monitor workplace accidents and deaths, but we don’t mention the human impact of abuse, wages, health insurance, or work-family policies. Without measurement, reporting, and requirements for social pollution, organizations ignore what they do to their employees. Leaving decisions about practices that affect employee health to the discretion of CEOs puts employees’ well-being at risk. We don’t leave environmental pollution to the discretion of CEOs. So why do we leave employee health up to CEOs — when CEOs too often lead in ways that serve neither the employees nor themselves?
Sickness caused by employers impacts public costs and themselves, who are mostly free to:
Employers assume that such interventions as exercise classes will be sufficient for behavioral change, but they rarely consider what happens in the workplace as affecting behavior. Research shows that job-related conditions profoundly affect such individual decisions as drinking, smoking, drug abuse, and overeating. Simply put: people who do not like their lives are less likely to take good care of themselves.
Job-related stress also affects business performance. Employers can implement practices that improve more than healthcare costs. By focusing on well-being, they can reduce their costs from:
Few employers report doing anything to address these health- and performance-related issues. Looking at what employers do daily to create healthy workplaces is a crucial missing piece to human well-being.
US workplaces may be responsible for 120,000 excess deaths per year, which would make workplaces the fifth leading cause of death, and account for about $180 billion in additional healthcare costs. About half of the deaths and 1/3 of the excess costs might be preventable, meaning they resulted from not tending to well-being. That’s more deaths than the number of deaths resulting from diabetes, Alzheimer’s, influenza, and kidney disease. Most of the workplace exposures have health effects comparable to or even greater than exposure to secondhand smoke. Prevention is both less expensive and more effective than remediation. (Indirect costs from disengagement, being physically present but not feeling well enough to do one’s best, and being distracted by stress are typically estimated to be about 5x as large as the direct medical costs.)
Companies that attract, retain, and motivate workers do so not by offering amenities like naps and free food. What matters is the work environment itself — from not having an abusive boss to having a workplace with comfortable temperature and good lighting to job control/autonomy and social support:
Companies make their employees sick, governments don’t much about it, and everyone pays the price. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can save thousands of lives and billions of dollars while making organizations more productive. Leaders decide whether or not to tolerate toxic work environments. Yet when a survey asked respondents what their employers did to alleviate workplace stress, 66% replied nothing.
As a civilized society, there ought to be limits on what companies can to do their people. Afterall, people aren’t advocating for slavery or child labor just because they might increase profits. We should prohibit companies from creating social pollution and create policies for them to measure employee well-being through such factors as paid claims, turnover, and work hours.
We need policies to capture the magnitude of externalized costs — real costs passed off, in this case to taxpayers. Companies currently have few or no incentives to internalize healthcare costs:
Governments should consider the harmful effect of employer practices on workers’ well-being. Forms of workplace abuse — long work hours, absence of job control, work-family conflict, an absence of social support, instability created by layoffs, and absence of health insurance — are a threat to employees’ lives.
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