Absenteeism, high staff turnover and conflict, depression and stress in the workplace are constant concerns for managers and executives at many of Canada’s major corporations.
Even more positive challenges, such as encouraging creativity and innovation, motivating employees and creating a flexible, adaptable workforce, can put managers and executives to the test.
These considerable management responsibilities can be a heavy load for any leader to bear. They need support. And that’s why business called in the psychologists.
It was Bill Wilkerson, chief executive officer of the Canadian Economic and Business Roundtable, who sent out the SOS to the Ottawa-based Canadian Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology (CHRSP), led by executive director Dr. Pierre Ritchie.
Ritchie, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Ottawa, said the business leaders want to team up with psychologists “to focus on how to make the workplace a better environment for everybody.”
CEO’s aren’t expected to possess psychology degrees; they’re heading a company to create products or services, sell them and make a return for their investors. So some business leaders are choosing to put psychologists to work instead. Psychologists undergo several years of rigorous training – between six years for a Masters degree to 10 years for doctorate PhD in an approved university program.
In a recent interview, Ritchie said workers want less workplace generated stress and more support if their personal lives have an impact on their performance. Meanwhile, business wants to increase productivity, be more competitive and profitable. Yet, said Ritchie, the two groups need not be at cross purposes. “Profitability is a necessity in business and psychologists can contribute to the economic viability of the organization,” Ritchie said.
Psychologists are specialized in understanding human behaviour and development. Their training is best suited to helping businesses deal with the real psychological health issues in the workplace like preventing burnout and depression, boosting team functioning, increasing interpersonal well-being and enhancing leader effectiveness.
CHRSP held focus groups with business leaders and psychologists to understand more about business needs and how psychology could help. Members of one focus group, held in Ottawa, and chaired by Robert Bertrand, publisher of Le Devoir, told CHRSP they want to decrease the cost to business associated with health problems such as absenteeism, poor performance and high turnover.
They’d like to know what promotes, sustains and maintains health at work and how could they use psychological knowledge to create a healthier workplace. The business participants asked for assistance helping managers talk constructively to people, encourage creativity and increase adaptability to change at work.
The leaders said a main goal is to help managers deal better with the psychological aspects of people’s behaviour and performance. Conflict resolution, offering and handling feedback and inspiring staff all require a degree of psychological knowledge and ability that business leaders don’t necessarily possess.
Identifying what is harmful to people’s emotional health in their organizations is important. So is helping managers recognize health issues they can address or avoid making worse.
The leaders recognized that the workplace generated problems – people are rightly upset with poor managers who don’t put energy into people skills.
But work was not the only source of employee stress. The leaders hoped that bringing psychological knowledge to the workplace would help employees’ families.
The business people said they needed to know how to help workers deal with stress, recognizing that it can’t be completely eliminated. They told the psychologists that organizations need to help employees in distress to recover and be productive again.
The leaders weren’t only concerned about the stressed-out worker. “They wanted to help workers who were productive and functioning well stay that way,” said Ritchie.
Business leaders believe managers need to carry out their strategic plans better by paying attention to the human dimensions that can make or break even the best business strategy.
They recognized that initiatives to make executives and managers more psychologically astute required support from the top: from CEO’s and VP’s with operating and budgeting authority. Hiring out psychologists costs money. Ritchie said the business leaders wanted psychological awareness to be part of the entire company, not solely an HR program or Employee Assistance Program function.
The psychologist, as business health advisor, was different from coaches, consultants and counsellors who also contribute to businesses.
Psychologists must demonstrate expertise in a recognized internship program and undergo a comprehensive licensing process. Psychologists are governed by ethical standards and are regulated by the College of Psychologists in their province. The College of Psychologists admits qualified applicants, disciplines registrants and provides protection to the public.
The business leaders want an alliance with professionals who understand mental health issues. They want to know that the psychological advice they receive is coming from trained professionals and based on quality social science research.
The two groups – business and psychologists, are working together to begin to provide organizations with psychologist business health advisors. But it’s a lot to ask executives with commerce or business backgrounds to develop psychological savvy and apply it or for psychologists to bone up on business principles, balancing profitability with employee well-being.
Yet, like any good marriage, both partners have to adjust their traditional ways of viewing the world, especially since access to psychological competencies in the workplace has become a pressing concern. According to Ritchie, a business- psychology partnership is helpful because “when companies are healthier, profitable and productive, the people associated with the companies also gain”.
Dr. Jennifer Newman is a workplace psychologist and director of Newman Psychological and Consulting Services, an organizational coaching, training and development company. Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org