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Detoxing the Workplace

Stressful workplace conditions can have as much of an impact on your well-being as second-hand smoke, says Jeffrey Pfeffer, Ph.D., a Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (where he’s taught since 1979) in a study he co-authored on the subject. Pfeffer’s critical, no-nonsense, data-driven approach to workplace problems in books like Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time and Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t have made him a giant in the field; here, he makes a strong case against today’s typical office, and for paying more attention to human sustainability at work. Beyond that, he suggests changes that leaders and companies can make to keep their employees more engaged, satisfied—and healthier.

A Q&A with Jeffrey Pfeffer, Ph.D.

Q

You argue that companies are increasingly emphasizing environmental sustainability, but largely ignore social sustainability. Why is this important?

A

A lot of companies—typically the large ones—put out what I would call a sustainability report, detailing their environmental impacts (like carbon offsets and recycling activities). Walmart, for instance, reports how much renewable power they are using, and what they’ve done to lower their impact on the physical environment. But I don’t think any organization in the world puts out a report that assesses the health and well-being of their employees, or what they’re doing to make their employees healthier, and live longer and better.

Why do companies pay more attention to the physical environment than the human one? Part of it is social pressure to care about the physical environment—the world is running out of natural resources. But there’s no evidence that we’re running out of people.

This trend—companies emphasizing the importance of the physical environment over the human environment—seems to be continuing. There has been an increase in the number of companies offering health and wellness programs (as part of an effort to cut down on health insurance costs). But health and wellness programs are not well focused—because they are concerned with individual behavior, rather than the work environment that helps produce that individual behavior in the first place.

Q

A section in your latest book reads: “Most workplaces are horrible.” What have you found to be the most common toxic elements in workplaces, and how widespread are these issues?

A

Toxic workplaces are extremely widespread. There’s the famous Parade survey that found that 35 percent of people would forego significant raises if they could fire their supervisors. If you look at the survey data from major human resource consulting firms or from Gallup, you’ll see relatively low levels of employee engagement, a lot of job dissatisfaction, and many people who are unhappy with their jobs. There is also a lot of turnover, particularly among millennials. The older generations, I think, are more willing to put up with bad workplaces; millennials, if they can get enough money, will often drop out of the labor force at least temporarily because they can’t stand what they’re doing and where they’re doing it.

It’s not surprising that people are unhappy at work. Workplace bullying and abuse are all too common. Leaders, managers, and employees are often under enormous competitive and time pressure, which contributes to workplace unhappiness. Abusive bosses are extremely harmful and psychologically damaging, particularly when they attack employees’ sense of self-worth and self-esteem. (Christine Porath has a book coming out called Mastering Civility about why workplace bullying and abuse is harmful, and why people would be happier and companies would do better without it.) A lack of social support in the workplace is a problem, too.

Economic insecurity is another big problem. Companies dismiss employees the moment they think they are no longer economically necessary. Many people today work in jobs where no one at the company knows how long the job might continue. For people in industries such as retail, incomes fluctuate much more than expenses do. Particularly in the so-called “gig” economy, but even in the so-called “real economy,” many people work in jobs with fluctuating work hours. (For example, with today’s scheduling software, if you’re a retail worker, your schedule may vary from week to week—and you often don’t find out far in advance when you’re going to work, or for how many hours.)

There is extensive research showing that not having control over your workplace—and your work pace—is extremely stressful. Computer monitoring has made the lack of job control worse, and a bigger issue.

Q

What effect do these factors have on our well-being?

A

Toxic workplace conditions create harmful stress, which research has shown has a direct impact on our health, as well as an indirect impact by leading to unhealthy behaviors, such as overeating, excessive alcohol consumption, or drug use.

In a study I conducted with Joel Goh and Stefanos A. Zenios, we found that workplace conditions like long hours, work-family conflict, the absence of social support, and economic insecurity are, on average, about as toxic as second-hand smoke for people, as measured by four outcomes: self-reported physical health, self-reported mental health, physician-diagnosed illness, and mortality.

So, there is second-hand smoke, which we’ve decided to regulate as a known carcinogen—and yet many of these workplace conditions have been shown to have just as big of an impact on our health.

Q

While the leadership industry is huge, you make the case in Leadership BS that too many leaders today are failing, resulting in workplaces populated with “disengaged, disaffected, and dissatisfied” employees. What do you think is causing this leadership failure?

A

The leadership industry commits all kinds of sins. One is that, for the most part, the evaluation of leadership programs is inadequate to nonexistent. Another problem: Many leadership events are more about entertainment than education or creating change. A third problem: The leadership industry often likes to tell nice, uplifting, inspiring stories that bear almost no resemblance to the realities of the world in which we work. We send people out into the world unprepared for the workplaces that they are going to encounter—unprepared for the realities of organizational life. If you are going to change those realities, you have to begin by acknowledging them.

Q

How do companies/leaders create more engaged, satisfied employees and a better overall workplace culture?

A

First, carefully select employees for your organization’s culture. [See this goop piece with Adam Grant for more on how to hire.] Give them training and development. Invest in them, and engage the norm of reciprocity: Let them make decisions. Treat them like adults, which many workplaces don’t. Let them share in financial rewards—give them a stake in their good work—as opposed to giving it all to the CEO. Put them in a workplace—maybe with self-managed teams—where they can interact with their work colleagues, because we know that human beings are social animals and they like social support. That’s how you get people engaged and interested.

Q

What about initiatives like mentoring programs, or increases in paid time off—what makes a difference?

A

I think initiatives like mentoring programs are fine, and can be useful, but they aren’t going to overcome the adverse effects of a toxic workplace because they don’t address the big conditions, like lack of job control.

Paid time off is very important, though, as is reducing work-family conflict. It’s extremely stressful to work without having enough time off. And obviously the extent to which employees have to balance all the demands of their jobs with the demands of taking care of family members—without the help or support or necessary time off from their companies—is a big problem. [Read more about paid family leave in this goop piece with Jessica Shortall.] So I’m a fan of doing what practically every other country in the world does besides us, which is mandating a certain amount of paid time off.

Q

What companies stand out to you as having positive cultures and doing right by their employees? Are there any replicable takeaways?

A

SAS institute—the largest privately owned software company in the world, with sales of about 3 billion dollars and 14,000 employees—has been known for years as a great place to work and has been consistently concerned with employee well-being. Google is another—they’ve done a very good job of worrying about employees and their well-being, in an extremely evidence-based way. (It will be interesting to see what happens with Google’s head of HR Laszlo Bock stepping down.) Those are two that stand out to me among the places that are typically on the lists of great places to work.

Companies should become more evidence-based when it comes to making decisions that affect the organization’s culture and employee well-being. HR departments would need to become more data-driven. Companies are collecting data, but I’m not sure they’re always using it to make decisions. A lot of decisions at organizations are based upon the CEO’s whim, or what every other company is doing, on trends and fads—rather than trying to figure out exactly what works best, and how, and why. It would be nice to get away from this fad-based decision making and become more evidence-based.

Q

What are a few books that leaders should read if they want to create better workplaces?

A

My colleague, Bob Sutton, wrote an interesting book called The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. If companies had their leaders read it, they would be better off. Gallup has done a lot of research on what builds engaged employees and their book, First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, is a good read, too.

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