Americans look to work for money, accomplishment, and personal validation. Beyond these foundational goals, workplace experts note, health and well-being are shaped by the same things that affect people in their other relationships--how they are treated, the strength and support of work-based social networks, and their ability to achieve a work-family balance that supports the rest of their lives.
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"Employment is good for your health," says Wake Forest University sociologist Robin Simon. "Work gives people a source of social interaction as well as [makes] a financial contribution" to their lives, she says. The added stresses and documented health effects of job losses during the past several years only prove how important work is to our well-being.
While the recession has made many workplaces stressful environments, it hasn't changed the potential benefits that people derive from supportive management and work policies. It has, at least in the short run, intensified a work culture that has already made the United States one of the least health-friendly nations in terms of working hours and lack of policies that support healthy family life.
"Work is organized in such a way that it makes it a constant challenge to maintain social and family ties," says Lisa Berkman, a Harvard professor who has extensively studied well-being and health. "We do almost nothing in terms of how our work is organized to help families exist. Instead of facilitating that, we in the United States challenge that all the time."
Berkman is now involved in a family-friendly pilot program with a company that provides long-term care services. Many of its employees are women. "Managers who were open and flexible to their employees' work and family needs had employees who had lower blood pressures" and less stress, she says. "Nurses are always on the border of being sleep-deprived, but the nurses in this program who had supportive managers slept an average of a half-hour longer" each day.
Countless studies going back decades have documented the health benefits employees get from so-called enlightened management policies. The difference today, Berkman says, is the growing body of persuasive evidence that companies can improve employee productivity, reduce staff turnover, and make more money by supporting employee well-being. Further, many companies have been surprised over the years to learn that they can trust employees to help manage their own work-life balance needs. Not only can people be trusted, but they perform better and enjoy their jobs more when they know they are trusted.
Teresa Amabile is co-author of The Progress Principle and a professor and director of research at the Harvard Business School. She has been studying workplace behavior and attitudes through detailed personal diaries kept by people working in different companies, industries, and even nations.
The research has produced shared components of a successful work experience that can be useful to all employees and their managers, Amabile says. "People seem to experience higher levels of well-being at work when they are intrinsically motivated," she says. They have a passion for what they do, and the job challenges them at the very top of their skill level.
In psychological terms, Amabile explains, a person's "inner work life" has requirements that need to be met for them to derive the most healthful benefits from their work. These include emotions, motivations, and impressions that are tied to all aspects of their employment, and it's noteworthy that each requirement has positive and negative components.
The issue for employees and their employers, she says, is "how do specific events influence inner work life, and how does inner work life influence performance?" Based on her diary project, Amabile says, "we found that of all the events that can make for a great work-life day, the single most prominent is simply making meaningful progress on their daily work. They have to feel there is some meaning in what they do," she continues. "Making even small steps forward is going to lead to positive work life, and that includes happiness."
Amabile's research identified seven "catalysts to progress" that people should look for in seeking satisfying and healthful work experiences:
1. Clear goals to achieve meaningful work.
2. Autonomy to meet those goals.
3. Resources sufficient to achieve the goals.
4. Help--from colleagues, managers, or the organization--that provides employees support and a place to turn when they encounter obstacles.
5. Formal mechanisms to learn from mistakes and get back on course. "People shouldn't be afraid of being punished [for mistakes]," Amabile says, or they won't be creative and work at their higher levels.
6. Openness to ideas at all levels of the organization.
7. Sufficient time to achieve the goals, but not too much time. "The optimal level for creative productivity seems to be low-to-moderate time pressure," she says.
A second source of meaningful support is actions Amabile calls "nourishers"--things that can enhance a person's inner work life and, she says, lead to "positive emotions, happiness, and warmth." Four types of nourishers turned up in her research: being provided respect and recognition, being encouraged when the going gets tough, getting emotional support when workplace or project problems occur, and receiving a sense of affiliation, camaraderie, and trust from your direct colleagues and managers.
As clear as these best practices have become to Amabile, it is equally clear that not many workplaces measure up. "In the larger scheme of things, there are so many organizations where people are feeling battered, and they're not feeling respected," she says. Often, "their managers are not paying attention to what's happening inside the workplace because they're so focused on what's happening externally in the market." The result, Amabile concludes, is a "disengagement crisis" that has left employees at all levels not engaged in what they do at work. Everyone--employees, executives, and business owners--is left worse off.
Berkman says the nature of work in this country must tilt toward employees and work-family change. Beyond debates over whether it's the "right" and healthy thing to do, she says, employers will be forced to make such changes because of the accumulating forces of three demographic trends.
Women have been in the labor force in large numbers for decades, but are rising in influence and their views on parenthood and career pathways will drive structural changes in the workplace. "The second demographic change is that we have an aging workforce," Berkman says. "Older workers really want to keep working. It's important to them for their physical and cognitive health, and their sense of purpose and well-being." The third factor is the sustained presence of large immigrant populations in the American workplace who bring with them differing cultural and family needs.
All three trends will place pressure on employers to provide more responsive and flexible job structures, she says. Technology is also an enabler of the flexible workplace. "These three things are going to be the shape of America," Berkman says. "We want our people to be the healthiest and the most productive in the world. But I don't think we can do that without fundamentally reorganizing the way we work."
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