Toxic workplaces override wellness efforts: Stanford professor

Health and wellness programs are virtually meaningless if a workplace culture is bad, according to Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s graduate school of business. Speaking during the annual Great Place to Work conference in New Orleans, Pfeffer said that unhealthy workplaces can cause up to 125,000 employee deaths each year and add up to $130 billion in excess annual company costs.

“Many of the individual behaviors you are focusing on in your health and wellness programs [such as] stop smoking, eat better, exercise more, are in fact the consequences of the environments in which they [employees] are working,” Pfeffer says. “If you work people to death, of course they are going to smoke more, drink more and eat worse.”

Pfeffer outlined his concept of “social sustainability,” where companies invest more in making their human capital sustainable.

“Work organizations ought to be measuring the health of their workforce,” he said in his keynote speech. “Just as many places today measure carbon, renewables and environmental impacts, we ought to measure human sustainability just as much as we measure environmental sustainability.”

When determining well-being and longevity of workforces, Pfeffer said that most company wellness programs – which conventionally promote individual health and wellness, biometric screenings and smoking and drinking cessation programs – do fall short of really instituting change. Indicators such as work-family conflict, lack of job control, perceived fairness at work, as well as layoffs and economic insecurity, all play a huge role in workforce health, he added.

“The higher you are [in the organizational structure of your company] the more control you have; the lower you are, [the] more flows down hill,” Pfeffer said, while noting that  low control over one’s work increases a person’s likelihood of having a cardiovascular event.

“This should not be surprising to you: Stress kills,” he said. “Nothing is more stressful than being in a workplace where you do not have control of the pace of what you are doing.”

In addition to offering health and wellness programs, Pfeffer said that a full revamp of workplace culture is also needed. Stanford University research finds that when employees avail themselves of wellness programs, there is only a $157 reduction in cost per individual.

“Because if I offer you health and wellness programs, and diet and exercise assistance, but I do not change the conditions in which you work, I am fighting a losing battle,” Pfeffer says.

According to Pfeffer’s research, some European countries report, on average, 22.4% less in workplace health care costs than U.S. companies. If the U.S. were to take up similar European approaches to workplace health and health care, it would result in a $42 billion reduction in health care spending, he said.

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