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.