The Easy Button: Corporate Canada & Employee Health Matters

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Business leaders learn how to manage other human beings in a corporate setting through two schools: first the university or college, and then the hands-on workplace school of practical (and in some cases, impractical) learning.

This is an age of change – organizations are now at the end of the industrial age and moving headlong into the information age. Massive forces are imposing change of all kinds on the traditional workplace.

Root Cause

Statistics speak clearly to what’s happening in corporate Canada: high rates of absenteeism and long-term disability, dysfunctional workplaces, etc. What are the roots of these problems?

The first factor impacting these issues are university curricula. Few business schools spend a lot of time on human dynamics – the people part of being a business leader. Programs focus on all sorts of systems, but the human system is not explored to the extent it needs to be.

Judging from the young businessmen and women I’ve met, I would argue that not enough energy and effort has been put into helping young Canadians understand how human beings tick, how the human mind works, and how they, as managers, fit into a business model. Some schools offer “Psychology 101” type of courses, but need to go further and make full use of experiential learning, using former managers and leaders, who have learned the hard lessons of business, to pass on their knowledge to prospective and young managers.

Young people need to know why a certain approach failed to help an employee in distress, and how the situation could’ve been handled instead. Business leaders need to learn from an early stage in their career how it really is to manage human beings and the human condition in a corporate setting.

Counter Productivity

Most of the emphasis in business school and corporate Canada is placed on productivity, but somehow productivity continues to suffer. Organizational sustainability requires a productive workforce. Record numbers of Canadians are taking time off work, however, because they can’t handle the stress or work environment.

I’m willing to bet if we truly invested more time in understanding human dynamics, and invested in human beings, then we would reap the rewards of higher productivity.

Referral Effect

The second part of the problem is that those in middle management are under a lot of pressure and often lack an understanding of human dynamics. When employee assistance programs began to flourish in North America, corporations said, “Well, our job is to make money, we’re not in the business of healthcare; if Bob has a problem let’s just refer him to the EAP.” Sometimes there are moral reasons for referring an employee, especially if their psychological state is seriously debilitated. But sometimes people just need a human connection.

The perverse effect of relying so heavily on EAPs is that there has been a gradual dehumanization of workplaces and how they treat employee health matters. The emphasis is on productivity, so Bob becomes a liability; something to be passed off as soon as possible so that the company can continue its focus on  the bottom line.

Messed Message

There is a whole industry that gives managers quick training in how to handle employee health matters, but in the end the training usually leads down the same road: slide the employee an EAP pamphlet and walk away. In effect, managers are being trained to abdicate their responsibilities to their people as soon as a problem arises. The message that approach may send is that, to the company, the employee really doesn’t matter. This is unacceptable and does not contribute to organizational sustainability.

Gone are the days when we could accept that a manager only supports or cares about the employee half of a human being. We need to start caring about the entire person. Once again the statistics back up how poorly our current approach is working for us.

Rehumanize

There are limits, of course. A company shouldn’t be expected to hand over its money to care for a family member dying of cancer; that is the government’s job. But the employee’s struggle as a human being, their human experience in dealing with the impact of that family member’s illness, must be supported. Referring someone to the EAP after a short conversation because the manager has to rush off to a meeting is an abdication of the human responsibilities of a company.

I’ve engaged hundreds of employees in dozens of organizations, and the trend is clear: many companies are perceived as being in the “people don’t matter” school of thought.

This needs to stop. We need to examine our over-reliance on EAPs and how they lead to an abdication of organizational responsibility. We do need EAPs, but , more importantly, we need to re-ignite the spark within managers that tells them they are capable of having an in-depth, caring conversation with struggling employees. We need to teach them that it’s OK not to have all the answers, all the time. The manager doesn’t have to resolve all employee problems, especially those of a personal nature – but showing care for an employee pays dividends in the long run.

People for people

Finally, we need to push our academic institutions to reappraise their curricula and truly integrate the knowledge and experiential learning necessary for future business leaders to manage employees. Many of those who graduate with a bachelor of commerce or MBA don’t start at the bottom of the corporate food chain. Even if they are only in charge of a few people, they are impacting human beings and need to know how human dynamics work.

After looking at the state of corporate Canada and how it handles employee issues, Mental Health Innovations decided to run corporate workshops that take a new approach. We developed management training workshops that are focused on experiential learning and how to be comfortable with an employee who’s struggling.

Managers are taught to be comfortable amidst human hardship, and that it’s OK not to be able to solve the person’s problem but to be a good listener. The important thing is to be there for the person and demonstrate a human connection at a crucial time.

Being a Human Being

Employees who feel supported by their workplace, who feel that they’re not just another cog in the machine, want to go to work because they feel cared about as a human being. There will always be a small percentage of people who, for lack of a nicer way of putting it, will look to take advantage of a more human approach to business, but they are outweighed by the vast majority of honest, hardworking, and loyal employees who may on occasion just need an ear and a human connection with those they spend one-third of their life with.

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