Anecdotal evidence has always pointed to the existence of a link between an individual’s health and the health of the organization in which he or she works. What’s needed to establish the link is a systemic framework and research methodology, both of which these authors describe. Once that is done, new ideas and new approaches to workplace behaviour will replace much of the current thinking, in the end, vastly improving the health of individuals in the workplace.

The presence of strong, negative emotions in the workplace has a very serious impact on employee productivity and performance. When people feel frustrated, guilty, ashamed, angry, humiliated or held in contempt, they adopt defensive behaviours to protect themselves, such as withdrawal, dissociation, competition and politicking. In turn, workers engaging in these kinds of behaviours contribute to communication problems, and themselves suffer from apathy and fatigue, which in turn increases error rates and reduces productivity. But the consequences of negative emotion do not stop there. Over time, workplace distress can cause workers to experience physical, mental and psychosomatic disorders that increase society’s health care costs and reduce overall economic performance.

One-third of the Canadian workforce reports that work is a major stressor in their lives. Between 1995 and 1999, absenteeism for reasons of stress increased by 316 per cent, and 25 per cent of employees who remain on the job are “actively disengaged.” Mental health problems cost Canadian businesses more than $30 billion a year in productivity, equivalent to 3 per cent of the country’s entire economic output.

Human resource management strategies focusing on recruitment, retention and talent management, as well as initiatives addressing emotional intelligence, may be helpful ways to address workplace malaise, but they are not sufficient to restore the emotional health of our workforce. At the root of workers’ distress are the traditional bureaucratic, top-down organizational structures that continue to dominate our workplace. But significant change may be coming sooner than we think: the successors to Generation X, known as Generation Y — those Canadians currently aged 5 to 25 — show signs of being the first demographic group to expect and demand more participative democratic structures. It is important, therefore, that we have a clear understanding about the relation between organizational design and human health. This article will clarify that understanding.

An organization’s health is a nation’s wealth

A good place to start is with a finding by renowned social scientist Fred Emery, who noted, some 50 years ago, that every organization is characterized by one of two design principles. These are, in effect, the DNA of the organization, and each produces a radically different work environment. Design Principle 1 (DP1) is a hierarchical, command-and-control structure, also known as a bureaucracy. These organizations are based on “redundancy of parts,” since at any time there are more people available than are required to do the productive work. A tightly managed DP1 organization may be called autocratic; a loosely managed one may be called laissezfaire. The critical feature of both types is that responsibility for coordination and control is located at least one level above the people doing the work. This appears to be the cause of individual frustration, shame, humiliation, angerand contempt.

The second design principle (DP2) is based on “redundancy of function.” This means that each individual possesses more knowledge and skill than can be used at any one time. Employees are paid for the skills they hold, not the position they fill. Responsibility for coordination and control is located with the group of people doing the work, the original “self-managing group.” A DP2 organization consists of self-managing groups that share responsibility and that are aligned in a very flat “hierarchy of functions.” In this organization, there are no subordinates; there are only peers negotiating with peers. Negotiation replaces the legal right to tell subordinates what to do and how to do it. W. L. Gore & Associates, the inventors of GORE-TEX®, can be characterized as one example of a DP2 organization. W.L. Gore’s workplace is free of the barriers that are typical of more traditional companies. It has done away with titles and special entitlements, and encourages direct, one-on-one communication. Multi-disciplined teams of associates in clustered plants organize around technologies and market opportunities. In fact, W.L. Gore believes that its unique corporate culture contributes directly to its product successes.

There are many human resource development initiatives that claim to change management and leadership styles, empower people and create teams. Many so-called innovative strategies offer up a kind of pseudoempowerment that does very little to improve employees’ health or performance. While employees may in theory be empowered to do their jobs, supervisors are, more often than not, still responsible for the work being done; they intervene to communicate changes in how the work gets accomplished and to give feedback on performance. Without clarity on goals and measures, as well as responsibility for them, employees will experience these interventions as negative. In short, a hierarchy of personal dominance will continue if fundamental changes are not made to the design principle that characterizes the organization.

Clearly, an organization’s design has an effect on human behaviour and emotions. There is little doubt that working in a DP1 structure? where people are treated as replaceable parts, or cogs in the machines? is stressful. Research shows that not only is psychosocial work stress a contributor to ill health and disease but that low job control, the lack of opportunity to use existing skills, and high levels of monotony? which are characteristic of DP1 organizations? may be related to the higher rate of cardiovascular disease and other health problems that are particularly evident among workers in lower job grades. Still, most organizations, large and small, persist in sticking with this “tried and true” structure. Moreover, the epidemic of delayering and downsizing among DP1 organizations, which favour this approach to cost containment, has left the survivors generally overwhelmed by the struggle to handle the extra work that has come their way. DP2 organizations, on the other hand, have a capacity to reduce psychosocial stress and impart health benefits. In these structures, workers are motivated to do their best, and they cooperate because it is in their best interests to do so. Mutual support and respect are high, and the work environment itself becomes one of continuous learning and development — true indicators of a “learning organization” that is adaptable to the global economy.

Open Systems Theory and its application to organizations

Based on field studies conducted over the past 50 years, Open Systems Theory has identified the attributes of workplaces that foster intrinsic motivation among employee. Employees in DP2 organizations consistently give their workplace high marks on these six criteria, whereas DP1 organizations score much lower.

1. Adequate elbow room. People are their own bosses. The tension between too many and too few degrees of freedom has to be managed.

2. Opportunity to learn on the job and keep on learning. This is only possible when people are able to:

a) Set goals that are reasonable challenges for them, and

b) Get feedback on results in time for them to correct their behaviour.

3. An optimal level of variety. People can vary their work to avoid boredom and fatigue, and to gain the best advantages from settling into a satisfying rhythm of work.

4. Mutual support and respect. Conditions in the organization should engender mutual support and respect among co-workers. This means that it is important to avoid the creation of conditions where people become entangled in destructively competitive relationships, and where group interest denies the individual’s capabilities.

5. Meaningfulness. People have a sense that their own work meaningfully contributes to the “greater good.” People see the whole product and their contribution to it, and they have pride in knowing how they have added value.

6. A desirable future. People want work that allows personal growth and increases skill levels.

Changing an organization’s design principle

Organizations are effective because they have a good strategic plan aligned with emergent opportunities in the environment, and because they have the organizational design to deliver on that strategy. While there is a lot known about business strategy, relatively little is known about organizational strategy, and even less is known about aligning business strategy with organizational strategy. What we do know is that organizations which have put a high priority on aligning their business and organizational strategies have had very positive results, including a high level of intrinsic motivation among employees, a healthy workforce and a strong performance for stakeholders.

The fact that DP2 organizations are more productive and have lower worker-to-productivity ratios has been known for some time. The Norwegian Industrial Democracy experiment, conducted 50 years ago, found that DP2 companies scored better on turnover, absenteeism, productivity and earnings. At Norsk Hydro, for example, productivity increased between 50 per cent and 100 per cent despite low staffing levels; downtime dropped from about 30 per cent to about 10 per cent, due to an increase in the level of concern shown by the shop-floor employees. More recently, Syncrude Canada has increased its productivity by 90 per cent. Consistent with the beliefs of W. L. Gore & Associates, they have attributed this significant performance improvement to the fact that since the 1990’s, Syncrude has operated as a DP 2 organization in which explicit attention is paid to equalizing power and authority across all levels and providing significant influence over decision-making and action-taking to the lower level employees.

Absenteeism, high turnover rates and non-optimal levels of performance and productivity are the traditional costs associated with bureaucracy. Workers who receive little feedback suffer anxiety, which, together with low job satisfaction, creates their intention to change jobs. The turnover rate is also likely to increase when employees’ values and goals, and their strategies for attaining those goals, do not fit with those of the organization. Those employees who choose not to leave the organization experience diminishing job satisfaction because their work is no longer providing the emotional benefits they desire. All of this presents a huge and unnecessary burden on a nation’s economy, yet the remedy is simple. When workers are given the locus of control, their intrinsic motivation and their commitment to the organization is high; this is true regardless of the worker’s age, education, tenure or position. Organizations that have introduced participative design processes have experienced immediate improvements in their performance and competitiveness.

Open Systems Theory and human health

Research has established a clear link between organizational structure and health in all its forms. The absence of control over one’s own work is a powerful stressor that shows up either as a physical or mental disorder. It is responsible for psychosomatic outcomes like heart disease, high blood pressure and related psychiatric disorders. Specific health indices correlated with poor quality of work include alcoholism, anxiety, depression, fear of failure, headaches, a constant need for sleep, and a need to be alone. At the holistic level, even the individual’s sense of coherence is negatively correlated with stress and traumatic life events.

Canadian findings generally support international conclusions to the effect that “most people are kept healthy or made ill where they live, work and play — long before they have contact with the health care system.”

Potential health policy and practice implications.

“In a rapidly changing work environment a public health policy must offer more than an increased rate of reaction to emerging health hazards. It must offer guidelines for creating healthier workplaces when major new investments are being made and when we are considering commitments to new investments” (Emery, F. E. 1985. Public policies for healthy workplaces. Human Relations, 38, 1013-1022).

The need for public policy to encourage the development of organizational structure and management practices that support the health of workers is just as great today as it was in 1985, maybe even greater. Truly sustainable healthy workplaces preserve human dignity. The Institute for Work and Health is an independent, not-for-profit research organization funded by the Ontario Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB); its mission is to conduct and share research with workers, labour, employers, clinicians and policy-makers to promote, protect and improve the health of working people. It recommends that employment policymakers and health policymakers co-operate to enact public policies for healthy workplaces. At the same time, the Institute acknowledges that the major barrier to new policy is the dearth of ideas. We believe that ideas are in short supply, in part because research has not yet established clear links between individual-in-environment and health. As we believe and have pointed out in this article, Open Systems Theory provides the systemic framework and research methodology that will enable managers, researchers and policy makers to resolve this dilemma.

About the Author

Henry Hornstein is an Assistant Professor at Algoma University, where he teaches Human Resources Development and Organizational Behaviour in the Business and Economics department.

About the Author

Donald de Guerre is an Assistant Professor in the Applied Human Science Department, Concordia University.

About the Author

Donald de Guerre is an Assistant Professor in the Applied Human Science Department, Concordia University.


Leave a Reply

Please submit respectful comments only, including full name, professional title, and contact information (only name and title will be posted). Required fields are marked *