We continue our series of the shocking revelations found in Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance – and What We Can Do About It, by Jeffrey Pfeffer. In this book, Professor Pfeffer establishes that there is a connection between toxic workplace practices, employee health, and organizational performance. Part one of this blog series on this book focuses primarily on Pfeffer’s most damning claim, which is that toxic workplace practices are more harmful to an employee’s health than exposure to second-hand smoke. Pfeffer effectively makes the claim that modern workplace stress can literally kill you. In Part Two of our book review, we’ll discuss two of the ten dangerous workplace practices identified in the book.
Those two practices are #6: Work/Family conflicts and #7: Low job control.
Again, the picture is not a pretty one.
Pfeffer defines work/family conflicts as two separate problems: 1) when family demands interfere with work productivity and 2) when work demands interfere with family commitments. He tells a story of a worker whose manager called at her father’s funeral and told her to cut short her trip so she could return to fix a client’s problem. To add insult to injury, when the worker returned to work the next day, she discovered that the issue had been resolved without her. This is an instance of work demands impinging on family commitments.
Not surprisingly, work/family conflicts produce negative physical and mental health effects on workers. These health concerns include higher levels of depression, poor health implications and increased alcohol consumption. In turn, employers must deal with employees who do not expend discretionary effort on the job, higher absenteeism during the average workday and rising healthcare costs that the company must cover.
Low job control
Pfeffer defines low job control as an employee’s lack of discretion of when, how and what work to do, and a low amount of decision-making authority. Low job control results in infantilization of employees and deleterious health consequences. In a famous series of investigations called the Whitehall Studies, scientists found that British Civil Service workers at the lowest level of the hierarchy experienced 50% more cardiovascular disease than those at the highest ranks of the organization.
Why is low job control so common in our workplace? One reason for this is the proliferation of workplace technology that automates many tasks and provides a manager more visibility into a worker’s progress. Both trends enable higher level employees to engage in micromanaging. Another reason for this is that organizations tend to promote workers with exceptional technical skills and fail to train them in managerial and leadership skills. We have a long workplace history of command-and-control management practices that are outdated in the 21 st century information economy. Let’s face it, commanding leadership styles have never been effective in building trust, collaboration and creativity in teams. But commanding styles may be the only style a new manager has been exposed to, making training on other leadership styles a requirement. Organizational cultures, which are built up over years and perpetuated by outdated management practices, take a long time to change.
To show how a company can combat low job control, Pfeffer tells the story of a call center at Collective Health, a health benefits organization. The company recruited from the best schools, trained employees about all aspects of the business, rotated the employees through different responsibilities in the call center, and empowered them to convene teams of co-workers outside of the call center to resolve customer issues. Dr. Andrew Halpert, senior director of clinical solutions, admits that the cost of these high-paid professionals might look high on the P&L, but it pays off in terms of customer satisfaction, time to resolve issues and employee retention. Call centers are typically the information economy’s equivalent of a sweat shop, so to read about an organization that is providing high job control to their call center employees is encouraging.
What executives and leaders can do about work/family conflict and low job control
Sadly, Pfeffer is not optimistic about wholesale changes in either increased federal mandates or employer practices around work/family conflict. Instead, he encourages workers to set boundaries around time spent working so they do not neglect their families, ultimately leaving jobs that are unfriendly to their need to balance work and family commitments.
Regarding job control, organizations must expand their criteria for promotions from simply technical skills to consideration of the person’s interpersonal potential. Importantly, companies must provide both training and coaching of their managers at all stages in their career, but especially when an employee is promoted for the first time into management. The leadership proficiencies all managers need are 1) coaching abilities, so their team members become independent problem solvers, and 2) effective delegation skills, so they can increase worker’s level of autonomy.
Next week, we will complete this book review by examining the importance of social support on the job.
From the desk of