Each year for the past nine years the American Psychological Association has bestowed four companies with its Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award, a recognition of those organizations that seem to best understand the importance of emotionally healthy employees, and factor it into their business model, both with concrete, measurable programs and a culture of caring that recognizes the value of addressing employee problems before they have a chance to derail the individual, or the business.
Organizations located in North America apply for the award by filling out checklists, writing essays, and allowing a team of local psychologists to visit and evaluate the workplace. The psychologists then recommend finalists to the APA, which analyzes the data and selects two non-profits and two for-profit companies as the winners.
Here, this year’s recipients explain why the award counts and share their thinking on how to run better, more productive organizations.
Note: Comments were edited for brevity.
University of Southern California
With 20,000 employees, USC is Los Angeles’ largest private employer. John Gaspari is executive director of the university’s Center for Work and Family Life, a 35-year-old institution that offers counseling services to faculty and staff. The APA honored USC for its “comprehensive employee wellness program that has reaped benefits which include positive impacts on productivity, absenteeism, morale, recruitment success and turnover.”
“My first exposure to employee assistance programs was as a child. My father, an aerospace engineer with a large company, had a significant problem with alcohol, and one day at work he was confronted by the people in charge of the internal employee assistance program, and given a choice: get treatment for his addiction or be terminated. He chose treatment. Suffice it to say, this was a transformational event in my life and the life of my family, and it has shaped some of my career directions. For me, working to ‘humanize’ workplace settings has been the vehicle for accomplishing this goal.
“Essentially, organizations are just social contexts, within which the best work is through relationships.
“Problems which may seem unrelated to work often have a significant impact on productivity and performance.
“In fact, the issues that employees seek consultation and assistance for are often directly caused by or related to work. Stress, for example. While stress can often motivate and impel people towards excellence, it can also overwhelm, debilitate, and degrade performance and productivity.
“In fact, when any personal issue arises that impacts the goals and needs of the business, it’s going to makes more sense – and probably be cheaper over the long run – to address the problems rather than to eliminate the person and start over.
“It’s clear, people flourish in environments that allow them to feel safe, valued, and supported. If an organization doesn’t have a well-integrated and trusted employee assistance program, I would recommend starting there. You simply can’t hold employees to high expectations without providing them with the appropriate resources to succeed.
“Our president, Max Nikias, often speaks of USC’s ascendency in the ranks of higher education by continually focusing on building one of the great academic research organizations in the world.
“But organizations like ours are intensely human endeavors. We spend a great deal of time and money recruiting, training, and nurturing employees.
“Attracting and retaining the best and brightest scholars, researchers, students, and staff is an essential part of building USC’s academic reputation. The psychological and social health of our employees is not extraneous to our goals, it enables them.”
St. Luke's Hospital
St. Luke’s employs nearly 2,700 people and posts annual revenues of $375 million. The Duluth, Minnesota, hospital earned the award this year because it “scores off the charts in employee retention, job satisfaction, health and morale. Employees have an active say in the policies that affect them and their patients through participation in staff-run committees, self-managed work groups, and problem-solving and continuous-improvement teams.” Marla Halvorson is director of human resources.
“My grandma used to say, ‘We don’t need to tell people how good we are. If that’s true, they’ll see it.’ In a lot of ways, that’s how our employees know we care about them.
“Part of what started this journey back in 2006 was focusing on employee injuries. Healthcare is really physical work. Not only were those injuries costing the hospital money, they were costing employees their careers. And when you can’t do the job you’ve been trained for and love, it’s devastating.
“So we started tracking injuries here in a lot of detail. Lifting and moving patients arose as a major culprit. And once we knew what the problem areas were, we were able to bring in experts who trained staff on the best ways to lift, move, and even catch a falling patient. We also purchased lifting equipment, very expensive equipment, and installed those devices in high risk areas first, and then unit by unit.
“Since 2006 when we began some of these programs, our workforce has grown 14 percent, so you’d expect worker’s comp claims to increase as well. But they’ve decreased by 29 percent. For every hundred dollars we spent on payroll in 2006, $1.36 went to worker’s comp. In 2013, it was $0.41. I don’t think anyone here dreamed that these programs would have the financial impact they did.
“Beyond the cost savings, though, I also think we have a moral and ethical responsibility to our staff. When employees here are injured, we don’t just forget them. Supervisors call them at home, tell them they’re sorry about the injury, and ask what the employee might need. I think some employees are really surprised to get those calls. More importantly, we find them work back in the hospital, something they can do if they can’t go back to their old job right away, just so they can remain in their social structure, keep the routine of coming to work, and don’t have to stay home depressed.
“Our employees also know the organization cares about them because they know we value their ideas. Our Unit Based Councils meet regularly and every specialty in that unit is encouraged to contribute ideas that will enhance staff safety, patient care, and efficiency. One of the ideas we instituted was a ‘No passing zone.’ If a patient presses his buzzer for a nurse and the light goes on, anyone passing that room is required to stop and at least pop his or her head in to acknowledge the request. If they can’t help, they’ll find someone who can. While that may seem like a simple, even trivial thing, it’s not. Patients who keep on pressing that buzzer for a nurse and don’t get one in a timely manner will often try to get out of bed themselves, fall, and suffer an injury. Lifting the patient back into bed exposes the staff to the possibility of injury as well.
“You can cut back on employee programs and you’ll undoubtedly save money on the cost of those programs, but you won’t be doing anything to address loyalty, turnover, and productivity. It’s pennywise and pound-foolish.
“I really believe that most companies, whatever their size, can save money by addressing employee safety. And if those savings are then taken and invested in other sorts of employee assistance programs, you can build a pretty effective organization.”
Located in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, Tasty Catering employs 200 people and has sales of $10 million annually. The company was recognized this year for its “high staff morale” and “culture-based leadership model, financial transparency and in-house training opportunities that include courses in business, English, sales, food science and professional development.” Tom Walter is Tasty Catering’s CEO, though he jettisoned that title nearly 10 years ago in favor of CCO – chief culture officer.
“Looking back, I think the desire to create an organization where people count came from two places in my own life. Because my childhood was devoid of emotional caring – caring was considered a weakness – I resolved that when I became a parent, or a leader, I would let those for whom I had responsibility understand that they were important to me.
“Also, in one of my high school classes we studied 20 great philosophers. A lot of their teachings stuck with me, particularly those of Immanuel Kant. As a result, everyone in our organization has been exposed to Kant’s Four Practices of Ethics:
- The right to the truth.
- The right to privacy.
- The right to not be injured – physically, emotionally, financially or psychologically.
- The right to an implied or written contract.
“And those precepts have guided me in fashioning the values, vision, mission, and organizational culture of Tasty Catering. A few among them include:
- Screen for skill, then hire for attitude. Hiring is based on organizational fit, not solely on skills.
- Teach emotional intelligence to all staff.
- Understand that everyone is somebody. Leaders are clear that employees are not simply productivity units.
- Create internal communications by teams and departments. Communication is not solely top down. It should speak from peer to peer.
- Stress Kant’s Four Practices of Ethics to remind all members of the company that they are held accountable to their co-workers.
- Allow everyone in the company to have their say. (Conducted on the third Monday of each month through our ‘Good to Great Council’ meetings.
“I have been asked by other companies and executives why we do it this way.
“Early in my entrepreneurial career it became apparent to me that an emotionally happy person tended to provide more positive energy to the organization. Emotional stress at work leads to emotional stress at home, which results in an emotionally disconnected employee. Every person has about 60,000 thoughts a day, and the average organization captures maybe 6 percent to 8 percent of those thoughts. The best way to increase that percentage, and to increase employee engagement, is to remove the disruptors. Programs that cope with problems, at or away from work, allow employees to focus more of their thoughts, energies, and creativity to help the organization.
“The message I’m trying to send to our employees is that they are somebody. They matter. And their families and loved ones matter.
“And our metrics prove that this approach works. We have no apparent drug or alcohol abuse among our staff, their spouses or significant others, or their children. We have no absenteeism problems whatsoever. When staff is absent, there is always a good reason: children’s events, illness, jury duty, house closing, etc. Since 2006 when we changed our leadership style from ‘Command and Control’ to an ‘Employee Created Culture,’ retention and recruiting has not been a problem. As a result, we have very little turnover. Most of the people who leave have hit a glass ceiling and pursue other opportunities with our encouragement. And most of those former employees join our alumni group and stay connected.
“But in the end, I’ll tell you this about the kind of company we’ve created: It’s just the right thing to do.”
Certified Angus Beef
The branding arm of the American Angus Association, Certified Angus Beef is headquartered in Wooster, Ohio. The organization employs 100 people who are responsible for assuring that product meets the standards of the Angus Beef label.
Pam Cottrell is the organization’s director of human resources.
(Editor’s note: Cottrell was unavailable by deadline. What follows is what the APA said about the organization.)
The APA singled out the organization for merit because of “its robust employee programs, incentives and development opportunities. This has resulted in employee referrals, high-quality applicants, a reduction in sick time and turnover.”
To help staff manage more efficiently, the non-profit company offers leadership classes that deal with real life situations. The organization’s wellness program addresses physical and emotional needs, and includes health club memberships, yoga classes, a wrist bracelet that keeps tracks of daily physical activity and sleep patterns, and even baskets of fruit harvested from the area.
Employees who are enduring personal problems can make an appointment with the lawyer or the psychologist who visit the company each month. And once-a-week employees receive a prepared dinner that they can take home and get a break from cooking that night.
It all must work. The turnover rate of Certified Angus Beef is just 2 percent to 3 percent.