Washington Lawyer

From the President: A Healthy Workplace Is a Wealthy Workplace

From Washington Lawyer, February 2004

By Shirley Ann Higuchi

presidentThere was a 20.3% increase in the year 2000 in the number of days anxiety, stress and neurotic disorders took employees away from work.1

2/3 of both men and women say that work has a significant impact on their stress level and 25% of Americans admitted they have called in sick or taken a “mental health day” as a result of work stress.2

Stress accounted for 12% of all absenteeism.3

High job stress was reported by 45% of full- or part-time workers in 2002, up from 37 percent in 2001 and 26 percent in 1999.4

These statistics indicate a disturbing trend: rising levels of stress in the workplace. Lawyers, in particular, face this problem acutely. They are prone to working long hours under short deadlines, are under pressure to meet tough standards of billable hours, and are given high client development targets.

There is no doubt that high levels of stress are harmful for employees. But stress also decreases employee productivity, which adversely affects organizations. Noting these trends and feeling the heavy costs associated with them, organizations are looking for solutions.

Developing healthy workplaces may be just what organizations need. Healthy workplaces invest in their employees’ well-being. In doing so they engage their employees, because the employees know that the organization has invested in their welfare. Some organizations have adopted such strategies, and their examples deserve attention because they have obtained glowing results: higher morale among employees, lower staff turnover, decreased absenteeism, and, crucially, greater productivity.

Take, for example, Rogers Joseph O’Donnell & Phillips, a California law firm that was recently honored with a Mid-size For-Profit Business Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award by the American Psychological Association.5 The firm has adopted two strategies: making the organizational structure less hierarchical and allowing employees to have a say in the nature of their work environment. Hence secretaries don’t just receive job evaluations; they design their own performance reviews and can evaluate the attorneys as well. New hires are required to introduce themselves to all of the firm’s employees, and all employees are expected to have an open-door policy to foster frequent and open communication.

The firm’s culture encourages every employee to have a say on the environment in which he or she works. Town hall meetings are a regular occurrence, and employees are encouraged to communicate in an honest and open fashion. Employees know that although there is no guarantee their ideas or concerns will always be accepted, their thoughts will at least be heard, evaluated promptly, and responded to fully.

When the firm first adopted these strategies, it was hoping that by treating its employees well it would lead to their treating the firm’s clients well, and such treatment was important for business. The measures have paid off: morale, productivity, and client satisfaction are at an all-time high.

This is but one example of how organizations invariably benefit if they take care of their employees, if they develop healthy workplaces. There is no single model as to what a healthy workplace looks like. Organizations must assess what is needed in their particular contexts, and come up with solutions unique to them. Some practices that have been shown to help are improving communications throughout the organization, increasing employee involvement in decision making, and providing flexibility to balance work–life issues. Particular strategies that have benefited firms include (but are in no way limited to) the provision of on-site or home child care services; on-site health clinics that, for example, provide flu shots for employees; flexible work schedule programs; mentoring programs; on-site seated massage services; and tuition reimbursement policies. All of these strategies improve the quality of the work environment—they make the workplace healthier.

Such practices are increasingly showing themselves to be not just good, but necessary for both employee satisfaction and organizational success. It is therefore imperative that organizations pay close attention to them and make efforts to adopt them.

The principle at stake here, the thread that runs through all healthy workplace practices, is simple. It appears that health and wealth are not mutually exclusive. They work in tandem and are, in fact, mutually supportive.

  1. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  2. American Psychological Association, 2000 national public opinion poll.
  3. 2002 CCH Inc. Unscheduled Absence Survey.
  4. Yankelovich Monitor annual study of consumer attitudes and lifestyles.
  5. American Psychological Association, Psychologically Healthy Workplace: Best Practices 2003. At the time of the award the firm was known as Rogers, Joseph, O’Donnell & Quinn.