Book Review: Redesigning Work: A Blueprint for Canada’s Future Well-Being and Prosperity

By Tom Barker, Healthy Workplaces Project Lead

Review of Lowe, Graham and Graves, Frank, Redisigning Work:  A Blueprint for Canada’s Future Well-Being and Prosperity, London: University of Toronto Press, 2016, 273 pages.

If you read the new book Redesigning Work:  A Blueprint for Canada’s Future Well-Being and Prosperity,  by Graham Lowe and Frank Graves from the perspective of wellness in the non-profit, contract human-service agency in Alberta, the picture that emerges is much broader than you might think, but also one that really speaks to us.

In particular, this book speaks to Executive Directors of agencies whose interests lie in developing wellness initiatives. 

The book speaks to human-service professionals in a number of ways, mainly by highlighting the social element in industry trends, the importance of employee involvement in wellness program design, and the importance of workers’ passions and motivation.  But more importantly, this book redesigns our view of the prime resource for the economic future of Alberta:  people.  Whereas natural resources have been the foundation for wealth in the past, the new foundation for wealth–defined as well-being and prosperity–is human resources.

Laying the Foundation for Wellness Initiatives

Much of the first part of the book looks at economic movements in society from the time of World War II until now. During this period in Canada jobs changed, the tools used on those jobs changed, and technology uprooted everything. For members of the agency sector in Alberta though, some terms and phrases stand out:  “marginal self-employed,” “the erosion of the middle class,” and “uncertain times.”  More to the point, the landscape of jobs that Lowe and Graves map out, is one of anxiety vs control, high stress and low job engagement, and job insecurity.  This language speaks to the work of human-service employees in our province: it is stressful, underpaid, overworked, and plagued by strains of family life.

Importantly, the authors zero in on the main cause of job dissatisfaction in modern work:  stress.  Stress is the inability of the employee to control the factors that cause stress. The authors note that” …an employee with challenging job demands but who has the autonomy to make decisions, appropriate job resources, and support from their co-workers and supervisor to manage these demands is more likely to experience well-being and fully contribute to company goals.” (p. 58) A stress-free workplace and stress-free employees means that a person has control over his or her work.

An important element that an executive should note in these early sections of the book is how the fundamental elements of wellness and job satisfaction work. The text discusses the excellent results of two sets of surveys:  one in 2004 and one in 2015.  These studies, done by the EKOS Rethinking Work group, outline, among other things, the increase of worker dissatisfaction, the decline in workers who look forward to their jobs, and the changes in the demographics of workers, including those in helping professions. The book discusses what motivates employees and includes a very helpful sampling of comments by workers about what makes for a healthy work environment.

“Workers have told us that it’s about the people they work with, the content of their work and feeling they are helping others.” (p. 75)

The People-Performance Link

For the executive director reading this book, another key point is link between employees and the company they work for.  If there is a direction policy leaders need to go it is toward finding out what makes employees satisfied, supported, and rewarded in their work and making that the central value proposition of their growth and strategic direction.  That’s it. While pay is an important factor, knowing that workers relate productively to one another, that they can help other people, and that they have challenges in their work (which some mistake to be stressors but are really just potentials for intrinsic rewards):  this is what a healthy wellness initiative needs to strive for.  And it is this that will be the reward for the agency at the end of the road.

Employee Involvement is Key

The approach taken in Redesigning Work is that wellness programs contribute to stress-free workplaces. (p. 59)  Interestingly, this approach means a close collaboration between employees and employers.  Involving employees in the development of wellness plans leads to successful plans.  Plans that involve employees means that those workers take advantage of wellness resources provided by the agency.  Plans designed with and by employees have a better chance of exploring a wide range of solutions.  Wellness committees designed under these circumstances have a better chance of success, also because they play a crucial role in promoting wellness plans.

“When employees participate in designing, implementing, and monitoring worksite wellness initiatives, they take greater ownership for their overall health, safety, and well-being.”  (p. 60)

What can a wellness initiative focus on in its employees?  According to Lowe and Graves it is values, or the meaning of work. Again, the results of the EKOS  Rethinking Work surveys is instructive.  The changes from 2010 to 2012 show the evolution of workplace values.  Those highlighted in the latest survey include freedom from harassment, a sense of pride, job security, and challenge.  Of the four only one is economic; the others are job features.

Job Values and the Employee Value Cycle

In the Healthy Workplaces project we have emphasized the Employee Value Cycle as a key to worker motivation.  Lowe and Graves emphasize employee values instead, as a starting place for building wellness.  Either way, the path for employers is to attempt to find what employees want most in a job:  values of pride and challenge, or a sense of contribution by performing a professional process.

When combined with leadership actions–outlined in the concluding chapter of Redesigning Work–the blueprint presented offers both challenges and opportunities for shifting the resource base in the direction of employees and a strong workforce.  For human-service professionals, and their leadership, the prosperous direction lies in finding ways to both create and measure well-being and prosperity.  In the Healthy Workplaces project we hope, also, to develop the kinds of goals-driven metrics that can lead to a similar well-being in the human-services agency sector in Alberta.


The Wellness Process

By Tom Barker, Healthy Workplace Project Lead

As our project unfolds into its third year it’s becoming clearer to me that wellness–the state most often associated with job satisfaction, physical and mental health, and stress–is something of a process or cycle.  In this blog article, I would like to explore the idea of wellness as a process, a set of activities that an agency, a committee, or an individual can do that lead to health and well-being.

What is a Cycle?

It seems pretty basic and maybe unnecessary to define such a simple term.  But sometimes reviewing the definition of a term can help understand its basic elements.  A cycle is a set of steps that lead one to the other, and that recur.  They get performed over and over again.  What is more, they perform a basic function, something of value to an organization.  For example, an event can be seen as an object, or as a cycle.  As an object, an event is something that occurred, like a fund-raising event.  It has a date, participants, equipment, food, whatever.  But seen as a cycle, an event is a series of steps–planning, gathering resources, performance, follow-up, and evaluation of effectiveness.

See as processes, events are not just beads on a string of things that happen.  They are repetitions of a process.  Now, as we all know, we get better at what we do over and over. To follow up with our example, the more we do “events” the better we get at planning, executing, and evaluating.  We grow these skills, train each other and ourselves in these skills, and shape policy within an organization so that these skills can be used to add value.  As we improve at them we learn how to increase the value of events by getting better at the process.  We collect data on what we did and we apply this knowledge to what we do in the future.  Sometimes this is called “closing the loop.”

Closing the Loop

In my work in curriculum design and evaluation we often talked about “closing the loop.”  Closing the loop in education means that the evaluation of an initiative or a course would be used to improve the course.  It is important to examine what your students say about a course–what they got out of it, or didn’t–in order to make the course better the next time.

In publication management–another of my professional areas–a department follows a cycle production from the time it receives a new product, through user analysis, content development, document design, review and testing, and publication.  This cycle is repeated in an department and as the department grows it learns to repeat the cycle more and more efficiently.  Other desirable characteristics of an agency–good leadership, sensible investments, effective fundraising, recruitment–can all be seen from this process perspective.

Like publication excellence, leadership, and other essential business and social outcomes, wellness can be seen as a cycle or process.

Wellness as a Process

Some scholars and theorists of wellness see it as a process.  John Bruhn, writing in the Journal of Community Health, says that, “Wellness is not a static state of being.  Rather it is a continually evolving and changing process in which individuals may participate;  it is, as much as possible, an integration of all aspects of their physical, mental, social and environmental well-being.” (p. 209)   Dr. Bruhn and his colleagues are speaking mostly about individuals and how they maintain wellness.  The stages of the wellness process, according to Bruhn, follow a series of steps starting with a “basic need” or desired state, and an “imbalance” or the recognition of a goal to be attained.  The next step is to shape behaviour oriented toward the goal, which leads to wellness. (p. 214)

Let’s look at another example.  In human-service agencies, wellness often starts with an initiative or program such as a training course or staff barbecue party:  anything that is intended to bring employees together and encourage social support, engagement, and sharing of work-related information.  After the event there would be some sort of evaluation to see if the event served its intended purpose.  This can be formal or informal, but it is the most important step because it closes the gap, records the growth from the experience, and sets the stage for the next event.  The process continues.

Seen in this way, wellness becomes not so much a product or commodity, but the result of efforts done with the intention of creating a cultural pattern of healthy behaviour.  In another scholarly source, the idea of wellness or well-being is seen as a cycle of practice that includes setting ideals, identifying needs, uncovering strengths, and taking action.  It is clear from this model or way of thinking, that “closing the gap” means that the result of the action needs to be evaluated so that new needs can arise, leading to a new cycle of learning and action.  As the cycle is repeated the agency grows culturally and administratively, developing hiring, training, reward systems, mentoring, and other elements that lead to a greater maturity of wellness capacity.

The bottom line for human-service agencies is that the more wellness initiatives that an agency hosts or conducts or promotes, the more the culture of wellness–and all that that means in terms of policy–grows.

The Healthy Workplaces Research  Partnership Program

The Healthy Workplaces project has been partnering with Heritage Family Services, the Central Alberta Women’s and Emergency Shelter, and Ronald McDonald House to go through the wellness process as a way to define what it means to each agency.  We began last February by doing initial assessments, and have followed through during the year with goal setting, planning, implementation, monitoring, evaluating and framework building.  That process involved, in one case establishing a mentorship program, and in others a series of wellness workshops that focused on learning about wellness from front-line staff.

The participants in the Program followed a process approach to wellness by designing activities–events–and closing the loop through evaluation.  The result is that each agency has been able to identify how the overall, general process of wellness applies in each of their circumstances.  Each agency is different:  provides different services, has different staff needs and clients.  But each agency has, by the end of our project, found a process that works for them and can look forward to repeating it as it grows in its wellness capacity.

We look forward to sharing our wellness journey next Fall at our Healthy Workplaces Conference.


Bruhn, J.G., Cordova, F.D., Williams, J.A. et al. (1977). The Wellness Process, J Community Health  2: 209-221.

Totikidis, V. and Prilleltensky, I. (2006).  Engaging Community in a Cycle of Praxis, Community, Work & Family Vol. 9 , Iss. 1,2006





The Leadership Value of Mentoring

By Stephanie Kowal, Healthy Workplaces, Academic Partner

Mentorship is valuable. Different folks argue that mentorship is valuable for different reasons, but you will have a hard time finding resources telling you that mentorship is a waste of time. Some articles focus on the satisfaction that mentors receive for from contributing to the growth and well-being of someone else. Some say the networking and career development that can emerge from mentor relationship is invaluable to the protege.There are lists of benefits for both sides but one of the regularly cited reasons arguing the value of mentorship relationships is the leadership skills both mentors and proteges gain during their time together.


As mentors take on new proteges, they agree to be in positions to motivate and encourage others. Mentors are asked to mentor because they have reason to be confident in their abilities and skills, to share their wisdom, and to help others follow in their footsteps. It is easy to find the ways that mentors act as leaders. Indeed sometimes leader or leadership is embedded directly into the definition of what it is to be a mentor, like the Canadian Nurses Association that termed mentors as experienced and knowledgeable leaders that support the maturation of those less-experienced but who have leadership potential.

It is fair to assume that proteges want their mentors to be experienced and have leadership qualities. However, there is no grounds to say that proteges are less experienced or only have the potential to be leaders. Often proteges are exploring new ways to use their experience and existing leadership skills in more meaningful or effective ways. I would argue that proteges are all leaders from the beginning. Proteges often take the initiative to approach their ideal mentor to ask for guidance. Conversely, they might be asked to enter into an unnatural facilitated mentorship partnership through a company program. These people could easily say, “No thank you,” but instead recognize the potential benefits of being in these programs and jump in with ideas based on their own goals. Proteges lead their own growth and development through their initiative, which can be a very anxiety-provoking yet fruitful trait. While the mentor may be recognized for his or her history of leadership, both the mentor and the protege demonstrate leadership qualities simultaneously.

Mentoring as Partnership

It is this partnership–between two leaders interested in personal growth–that makes leadership through mentorship unique. Mentorships are mutually beneficial. Furthermore, they are cyclical in their benefits. At first, a mentor may benefit in most ways altruistically. They feel satisfaction in helping bolster the growth of a fellow employee or someone new to the field. Mentoring gives mentors an opportunity to reflect on their practice, understand where they are strong, and share that knowledge with another. However, mentors receive material benefits at times as mentorship can be considered community service that can further a mentor’s career.

Similarly for proteges, their new learned skills and strategies can make their job easier or make them more productive, increasing job satisfaction. Proteges may also use new skills, or develop an understanding and appreciation for their current skills, making them more confident in general. This confidence can be used to do their current job or may give them the motivation to pursue another job or career path they’ve been curious about for some time before their mentorship experience.

When each person grows, the benefits of mentorship expand beyond the initial reasons for engaging in a partnership at first. This is especially true in partnerships within the same organization. As the proteges becomes more confident in their skills and their voice, they can begin challenging some of their mentors’ perspectives. By contributing their thoughts, proteges give mentors new ideas and ways of thinking to consider. Consequently, both the mentor and the protege contribute to each other’s understandings of their organization the various experiences of those in different company positions.

mentorship-2When both the mentor and the protege share their knowledge in this way, they build each other’s capacity and the overall strength of the organization. Mentorship is a strong tool for organizational learning if mentors and proteges share their knowledge and their learnings with others in the organization. Everyone has invaluable talents, experiences and knowledge they gain through their day-to-day practice. Most often we keep this experiential knowledge to ourselves, taking it with us when we eventually leave the organization. We do not hoard our knowledge, we are just rarely given the opportunity relay it to others in meaningful or permanent ways. Journals, logs, reflections, or activities recorded during mentorships can all be used as documentation to share implicit knowledge with the rest of the employees, in turn building the capacity of many co-workers, rather than just within the partnership. Few things are as satisfying as building the camaraderie and knowledge of your coworkers others through sharing your own lived experience.

And here is where the benefits of mentoring come full circle for the mentors and the proteges. Two leaders with implicit knowledge have the opportunity to, first, learn from each other, then, create a resilient work environment by developing organizational best practices through sharing knowledge. This sharing builds everyone’s capacity, captures valuable knowledge (building organizational learning), and gives those in the mentorship partnership a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.

Mentoring Activities for Helping Professionals

By Tom Barker, Healthy Workplaces Project Lead

Most mentoring in child and family services comes through informal means.  A new person in an agency has a lot on his or her plate:  understanding intervention and service frameworks, building networks of community supports, and just plain learning the ropes of a new job.  But beyond that there is a comfort zone that all professionals know well and that takes time to build.  On an informal level, just “being there” for a new employee is a great way to open the door to mentoring and guide newcomers toward that comfort-zone goal.

Informal Activities

Informal mentoring can be one way to make that comfort zone seem more attainable.  Consider what mentoring can do to help new employees:

  • Impart “insider knowledge” about an agency that can lead to better footing for newcomers
  • Impart “network knowledge” of community support people, government agencies, health resources and safety options.
  • Support right descision-making when applying ideas from training, or from Alberta’s Child Intervention Practice Framework.

However, in some agencies, mentoring can be more systematic. It’s part of a program designed to foster communication from top to bottom of the career path.  In such a formal setting, specific activities can be spelled out to guide mentors and protogees in their work together. Melany Gallant’s blog on 20 Great Ideas for Work Mentoring Activities can be a good start for refreshing one’s memory about mentoring.   The thing to remember about Gallant’s suggestions is that you don’t have to do them all, nor do they have to be done in any specific order.  Coaching, setting goals, job shadowing, working together:  these come naturally to professionals.


One of the main activities mentors and proteges engage in is conversation.  Asking questions is a great way to get conversations started.  Looking back at Gallant’s activity ideas, you can see them as based on questions.

  • What do you think was the “take-away” message from that meeting we just attended? (#13 “Debrief afterwards.”)
  • Where do you see yourself after a couple of years in this job?  (# 14 Creating a vision statement)
  • What brought you to this work?  (#10 Share career history)
  • How do you think that intervention worked (or didn’t work)?  (#3 Address mentee challenges)
  • How could you have handled that interview differently?  (#18 Be a coach – Target weaknesses)

What even more good questions?  The Centre for Mentoring Excellence website has some great ideas for conversation starters.  For example:

  • For starting the mentoring relationship:How do we make this process work for you?
  • For goal setting: What is the most important thing you want to achieve?
  • For pushing and challenging your mentee: Is this goal worthy of our time and effort together?
  • For goal achievement: Did you get the results you hoped for?
  • For checking in and feedback: What value has this provided for you thus far?


Team or Group Activities

Another advantage with having a formal mentoring program is that it gives mentors and protegees the chance to meet and share ideas about activities.

When we think of mentoring relationships, we usually think of one-on-one interactions with a mentor and a mentee. But that doesn’t always have to be the case. In fact, for many organizations, group mentoring has become an equally effective (and often more efficient) way to offer mentoring services to employees.

If you know what other mentoring teams are forming, maybe you can find ways to suggest that teams get together and address issues that come up from time to time. It’s always reassuring to learn that other pairs have asked the same questions, just as it is to get new ideas.

Accountability Activitiesistock_000006392696small-300x200

Finally, we want to be accountable in our mentoring.  Being a part of a mentoring team or partnership can only be as strong as the self-awareness and responsibility that both partners need to bring to it.   To help build accountability, the Mentoring Partnership Check-In Accountability Tool can come in handy.  Building an activity around accountability is a great way to help knowledge get built into the culture of an agency. Meetings like this are reality checks that can keep a partnership on track

Whether mentoring is informal or formal, it is centred on activities–conversations, meetings, and reality checks–that keep up interest and keep partnerships moving toward productive goals.


Growing Wellness Leaders in Alberta

By Tom Barker, Project Lead

Our in Healthy Workplaces addresses wellness issues–stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma–as outcomes stemming from disengaged, under-supported care workers.  Hence, our emerging framework to address stress in the agency human-services sector in Alberta builds on a healthy “helping cycle” (intake, assessment, mitigation, and release of clients).  We help staff members look at ways that they can understand the stresses inherent in that role and how they can work with the agencies that employ them to grow their ability to deal with stress.  The agency that supports the work–the helping cycle–of its staff is the agency that, ultimately, can adapt to external market, client, and gThe Helping Cycleovernmental conditions productively.

The workshop materials we present in the existing Be a Wellness Leader package have been tested and refined from our Winter Workshop series of presentations in Edmonton, Red Deer, and Calgary, as well as to the ACDS Conference held in Edmonton in March. The workshop materials contain useful statistics from our research to support the points made. These materials guide staff members and supervisors through a series of steps that represent ways employees can realize their roles in supporting a healthy agency workplace.  The five steps are as follows:

  • Step 1: Understand wellness basics
  • Step 2: Understand your role in the agency
  • Step 3: Have a “leadership vision”
  • Step 4: Use wellness tools
  • Step 5: Share a “leadership story”

Kelly’s Story

The workshop follows the case of a care worker named Kelly who has what many recognize as a “bad day” based on frustrations she experiences in the workplace.  Along the way, Kelly learns the dynamics of stress, understands what she and her agency can do together.  She–and the workshop participants–then develop a vision of a stress-free workplace and practice using stress assessment and mitigation tools.  Finally, workshop participants see how Kelly developed a leadership story and they develop their own.  The leadership story is a success narrative that, in Kelly’s case, involves understanding the need for social support from co-workers.  Other kinds of support–from agencies, families, and social networks–are also explored.

Workshop Materials

The Be a Wellness Leader workshop contains three primary tools to help supervisors, trainers, and human-resources managers strengthen employee engagement and awareness of stress issues.

The more care workers can learn from each other, the better.

The Presentation

The Be a Wellness Leader presentation is a self-explanatory workshop presentation that takes the audience, step-by-step, through the five-step process of understanding stress and understanding how to deal with it in healthy ways.  The presentation consists of 38 slides that can be broken up into segments or all done at once.  The entire presentation takes three to four hours, but can be presented in a half-day format.sharing

The Handouts

The handouts for the presentation include worksheets for identifying elements of the “Helping Cycle” and where stress points might occur in the every-day work of Helping cycle assessment toolserving  clients.  It also contains a worksheet that allows a care worker to examine a day plan and assess potential pressure points that one might encounter on any given day.  This worksheet, called the “Daily Stress Assessment,” is modeled on the kinds of daily health and safety sheets that are used in construction work, manufacturing, and industry. The handouts also feature worksheets to help participants develop their “bad day” and “next day” stories and help plan how they might use their experiences to support other workers and contribute to the healthy climate at their workplace.

The Slides

Like most BWL Slidespresentations, the Be a Wellness Leader package also includes 3-up slides with note-taking areas.  Participants are encouraged to follow along and engage with the materials so they can discuss and ask questions of one another.  Really, the materials are basic to social work and self-care so in this presentation the real resource is the worker him or herself.  The more care workers can learn from each other, the better.

The Certificate

When staff members work through the slides and share their wellness stories with one another, they will have accomplished a lot.  They will see the stages they need to follow to become more wellness aware, and will have developed a plan for sharing their self-care success stories.  As recognition for their efforts, we have included the “I Am A Certified Wellness Leader Certificate.” Just print and write in the name.

The Evaluation

Again, like all good presentations, we have included an evaluation form that allows participants to provide feedback to the workshop facilitators.  Those involved in the workshop are encouraged to scan and send responses, or simply gather them in a file, and send them to the Healthy Workplaces Project Team (

We at the Healthy Workplaces Project hope that these workshop materials will be useful for human-service agencies in Alberta to support their wellness efforts.certificate



Overview of the Healthy Workplaces Project

By Tom Barker, Project Lead

This blog presents an overview of the Healthy Workplaces project, and attempts to put the pieces of what we do together.  At its foundation, the project attempts to find out the extent to which workers in this sector feel comfortable with their work, think that they are making a difference, and are assured that their work contributes to the agency where they work. Because these individuals care for some of the most needy Albertans–in terms of disabilities, families in crisis, youth in crisis, and victims of violence and sexual abuse–the working conditions of these persons is of great interest to all of us.

The Job Demand vs. Resources Theory

Much of what we do and think about this work has to do with a very common paradigm of stress known as the job demands vs. control model.  The idea behind this model is that, when an employee is asked to do something, the amount of stress (measured as “unhealthy pressure”) that person feels depends on whether that person has the capabilities to respond.  If the person can respond well to the pressure, then “no problem.”  The worker can handle the stress;  has the professional, social, and organizational supports and resources to respond.  Sometimes this is called the “stress bucket” model.  The more a person puts into the bucket, the more stress.  The more a person can empty the bucket (by relaxing, getting appropriate training, seeking help from supportive supervisors) the more the bucket does not overflow with stress.

Because the pressures in the stress bucket–from increased client need, changing economic factors, and other social realities–have increased in the sector, we wanted to measure three things:  are employees feeling stress, are they satisfied in their jobs, and do they feel healthy in their workplaces?  To find out the answers to these questions, we partnered with associations such as ALIGN, CYCAA, ACWS, AHVHA, ACDS, and AASAS to reach out to human service workers in Alberta.

Our environmental scan of agencies in Alberta resulted in the following general statistics. 

  • Number of non-profit, human service agencies:  450

  • Number of employees in non-profit, human service agencies:  13,000

  • Areas of client services offered:  child and family services (including foster care and child protective services workers), child and youth counselling, women’s shelters, sexual assault counselling services, home visitation services (including tean pregnancy), disability services

The Findings

Through our association with these advocacy agencies, we were able to reach out to almost 600 employees across the province.  Admittedly that is a small number compared to the many persons working in the sector, but we feel strongly that the survey reached the right people and that our results tell a valid story of the pressures these people feel.  What we found was that people are indeed feeling “unhealthy” (36%) in the workplace.  We also found that roughly one in four persons (27%) feel “unsatisfied” in their jobs.  Finally, we found that about 2 out of every 3 persons felt “unhealthy stress” (62%) in their jobs.

Given that one in three persons in the sector feel stressed (because so much is demanded of them for which they lack professional, social, individual, and agency resources) we think there are areas where support could be provided.  But the situation is complex.  What causes the increases in job pressures?  What can be done at the individual or organizational levels to help provide the needed social and professional resources these caring individuals need to do their work?

To help answer these last two questions, our survey asked about individual capabilities and working conditions. Based on the advice we got from our Research Team (consisting of representatives from our Partner Agencies) we framed our questions positively, asking our respondents what resources they thought were most important.  We asked 14 questions along these lines and found that a few common threads emerged.

  • “Control is given to me in my job” This response was given by almost 3 out of 4 (72%) care-givers.
  • “Flexible work arrangements” Almost 3 out of 4 (72%) of care-givers indicated that they needed to be able to adjust to job demands as they saw fit.
  • “Organizational support”  This category of strengths has to do with a complex of factors, including “support for self-care” (60%), “access to employee assistance programs” (54%), “relevant job supervision” (53%), “open communication about health and wellness issues” (51%).

The overall picture that these and other findings create for the leadership in the sector is that health and wellness is something of a crisis in the non-profit, human service sector in the province.  We are not just faced with one in three persons lacking adequate resources to do their job, but we are faced with thousands of clients who depend on professional service and who may receive service that is compromised despite the best efforts of the care-giver.

The Intervention Framework

In accordance with the mandate we received from the Ministry of Labour, that funded our project, we have begun to put together some ideas about how to provide support for these care-givers.  Again, in line with our approach to work at both the individual and the organizational levels, we want to ask “where does responsibility lie?”  We think it lies both with the individual-who needs to understand his or her role in health and wellness–, and the organization–that needs to know the right kinds of support and resources to provide. Our approach, then, can not focus on specific issues that individual agencies face–employee burnout, increased certification and training issues, lack of funding–but to overall issues of wellness and health.

The strategy we use is based on the relationship between overall wellness and health.  According to a research done by the Gallup organization, “Engagement alone has been shown to have a positive relationship with employees’ health outcomes.”  If these findings are correct, this means that employers wishing to boost overall workplace health can do so by increasing the extent of employee engagement.  What this relationship tells us is that the more employees participate, have their views heard, and contribute their day-to-day knowledge about how their jobs can be done right, the stronger and healthier the agency will be.

Our interventions are based on two levels.  The first is to find ways to help individual employees think of ways they can do their work better.  To this end, we have found many scholarly and popular sources to help in identifying the basics of stressors and responses, learning about self-care, building healthy relationships, using agency resources, and telling their wellness stories.  We call this our Be a Wellness Leader program.

At the organizational level, we are working with four partner agencies to develop staff supports that incorporate the Be a Wellness Leader ideas into techniques for developing greater staff engagement.  These strategies include mentoring programs, job-design committees, and employee communication pathways.  These experimental approaches, in conjunction with targeted training, can create a framework wherein agencies can fine-tune their engagement efforts.

The Future

The outlook for non-profit, human service agency employees, the agencies they work for, and the clients they serve is promising.  This coming Fall we will inaugurate a new workshop series, including webinars and face-to-face presentations, that will deliver our framework to the province.  And next year, in 2017, we plan on hosting a all-Alberta Healthy Workplaces conference that will showcase the efforts of our research partners and present the results of our second, province wide survey.  The hope is that having identified the outcomes that matter and having built (with the help of our research partners) a useable wellness/engagement framework, will lead to overall increases in wellness, and, in turn, better service to Alberta’s citizens with child, family, and disability needs.  That is the ultimate goal.


Double-Looping in Agency Practice

by Tom Barker
Project Leader, Healthy Workplaces for Helping Professions

Here’s something that occurs every day in family-service agencies in Alberta.  A client comes into care and there begins a process or testing and assessment that can take up to a month or more.  The goal is to find foster or kinship care that is appropriate and helpful so that the youth can move ahead on a healthy life path. This is challenging work, especially for new staff. New staff who help that youth make it through the first few days or weeks often rely on each other to fill in the gaps in their training.  “How can I calm this kid down after I’ve exhausted all I learned in training?”  “How do I bridge the [you name it] gap between what this community support is supposed to provide, and what it actually does provide?”

To the experienced staff member, these are questions with ready answers, but to new staff the answers are less obvious…and more stressful.   What’s more concerning is that that kind of hallway talk doesn’t always make it back into training.  It is too often lost to the agency.

In this blog post, I’d like to explore a technique found in organizational learning that can help an agency benefit from the hallway talk that new employees rely on so often.  It’s called “double loop” learning.  First, let’s look at single-loop learning.

 Single-loop learning is very valuable because it relies on the “try something new” approach we often take in problem solving.  Let’s take the “how to calm the client down” problem.  If playing a game doesn’t work, then we might try telling a story.  If that doesn’t work we might try offering a cookie or fruit, or whatever, until we learn something that creates a calming connection.

Single-Loop Learning

According to ToolsHero, “This form of learning aims at solving the increasing changes and the problems that have risen as a consequence of this. However, this ignores the real cause of the problem.”  The real cause of the problem may be outside of the immediate situation.  It may lie in how the intake is set up, or require the asking of more fundamental questions.  Such questions go beyond problem solving.

Double-loop learning is learning that goes beyond the try-and-try again approach.  Recollect the situation we described above.  Suppose the staff person stopped and asked, “Why do I want to calm this child down?”  “What happens if the child can, this time at least, experience his or her own feelings for a while, until some more natural restraints kick in.”  Asking that kind of question requires that the helping professional look at the underlying assumptions that govern the situation.  This is double-loop learning.

Double-Loop Learning
Double-loop learning, as the diagram at the left shows, loops back from the assumptions one makes to the information one has and questions the rules that govern decision-making.

This process is the key to reflective practice, especially in ethics. In ethical decision-making one asks,  “Why am I doing this and does this action cause harm?”  All ethical professionals are trained to consider processes of ethical thinking in all their professional activities. We may not realize that the reflective process in double-loop learning is strikingly similar to ethical reflections that we engage in every day.

For helping professionals the process of double-looping is often not recognized as being as valuable as it actually is.  So why is it valuable?  The answer is that it often captures the lived experience of staff members; the tacit understandings that staff members develop over the years. Authors Louise Grant and Gail Kinman even claim that managers with years of experience can pass down the emotional resilience needed to undergo a potentially stressful situation (such as an un-calm client).

Double-loop thinking–and learning–is the way that agencies can benefit from otherwise unrecorded experience.  According to Richard Elliott, double-loop learning has a direct link to quality improvement.  That is, the more organizations can develop ways to record this kind of knowledge and use it productively in their strategic thinking, they more they become “learning organizations,” capable of weathering things like economic downturns or radical shifts in practice frameworks or markets.  The question is, then, how can human-service agencies find ways to encourage double-loop learning among their employees?

Some of the more traditional approaches to building a learning organization, such as Quality Circles and Self-Directed teams rely on reflection and problem solving.  In the area of social work one finds theories that suggest that practice is “practitioner-led” and “discovered through experiential learning.”  Reflective practice is built on this assumption:  that organizations and individuals that examine their assumptions are able to learn to value their own and others’ experimentation.

One might argue, however, that, especially in Alberta, the Child Intervention Practice Framework and approaches like Signs of Safety, and others, already come with built-in solutions.  However, from the perspective of double-loop learning, it is in the actual, lived experience of applying these frameworks that agencies are able to benefit in terms of wellness.  If agencies are not able to do this, then they risk introducing frameworks that increase the pressures on their employees who have to apply principles without adequate training or mentorship.

In our research into stress-related factors in human-service agencies in Alberta, the Healthy Workplaces project has found that being able to adopt one’s own strategies for problem solving (and balancing work and family) is reported to be most important by over 81% of respondents.  And being given control over one’s job is reported as important by over 71% or respondents.  These findings suggest that staff members on the job feel that they could reduce stress if given the chance to apply their own “strategies” to solving work problems.  If implemented strategically, double-loop learning may be a way to capture some of this home-grown wisdom and put it to use across the agency.

One of the reasons double-loop learning  works is because employees who use it are, in fact, making up theories about why events fall out the way they do, and they are acting on those theories.  The problem that theorists note, is that people are often not even aware of the theories they use every day.
 Another popular method of instituting double-loop learning in organizations is through mentorship programs.  But only if those programs are given the extra power of reflection. Michael Kelly makes this point in his article on mentoring and organizational learning.  Kelly asserts that mentoring that has the “catalyst” of reflection can produce policy and training insights for social work agencies.

The basic idea was to give mentors and proteges (in pairs) assignments to monitor the relationship between problems they discuss in their relationships and company policies that impact an employee’s job control and duties.  The pairs would meet for a couple of hours twice a month to discuss their experiences (focused on their assignments) to see how job policy might be revised or, at least, reflected upon.  In this way the employee experience, going through a couple of steps, affects policy and, in turn, increases the agency’s ability to control job pressures effectively.

The “couple of steps” is what we know as double-loop learning and has to do with using experience to question underlying goals.  That’s kind of what we’re about in the Healthy Workplaces project:  taking experience to another level of understanding and applying that to policy and training.

Mentoring is just one way to introduce double-loop learning into an agency.  Agencies can also tap into the learning that goes on in Health & Safety committees, staff meetings, exit interviews, and other human-relations oriented activities.  Evaluative activities that accompany training are also great sources to capture the record of double-loop learning.

So when you or someone you know asks, “What’s a better way to do this?”  they may just be tapping into double-loop thinking and learning.  And when agency leaders find ways to link that learning to policy and training, they may just be moving their agency toward greater health and wellness.