Healthy Corporate Cultures in Times of Crisis

Workplace Health Promotion in a Crisis: Time to Invest, not Divest...


The economic recession which has swept across Europe has turned the spotlight on how companies treat their employees in a crisis. As enterprises look to reduce their costs by slimming down their workforces, should they instead be investing in the health of their employees to get a better return on their 'human capital'?

The current economic downturn dominates our media and our lives. In the final communiqué of the G20 summit at the beginning of 2009, the heads of governments called the current crisis the largest challenge for the world economy in modern times, with consequences for the wealth and welfare of all citizens on the planet. They agreed the crisis would require a globally coordinated approach. This resulted in massive national economic stimulus programmes, with safeguards and rescue operations, not only for the banks but also for large-scale enterprises with key economic or political functions.

Many enterprises are employing the standard response to times of crisis - cost reduction and economizing their operations. Subjects such as health and education very quickly attract the attention of the cost-cutters. Expenditure which is not seen as urgent or necessary for the economic benefit of the organisation, is immediately put under the microscope. Which begs the question whether workplace health promotion is only a "fair weather" topic.

The identification of the financial and other benefits of an employee-oriented health policy and organisational health promotion – the Business Case - assumes even greater importance in the current crisis.

Traditional management concepts in a crisis

According to the experiences of EfH, the Business Case for investment in health and corporate culture is essentially based on three key principles:

  • Enterprises invest in health and corporate culture in order to prepare for the demographic change.
  • Due to their corporate values they are convinced of the long-term added-value of these so-called "soft" factors.
  • They can prove in different cases that a corporate culture, which pays due regard to health, has the immediate effect of improved business results.

However, the number of corporate decision-makers who allow themselves to be guided by these maxims, is still very limited. The enterprises who are members of EfH agree that this is linked with traditional, basic principles of our economy - but, then again, so were the business models of corporate finance which have since proved to be anything but a firm foundation for our future prosperity. The logic behind the short-term view driving traditional management actions and the exclusive and one-sided concentration on cost reduction is therefore called into question.

These management principles, according to the discussion in the EfH-enterprise circle, are outmoded; they are the reason that employment is still considered purely as a cost factor and consequently, expenditure on health and operational education is also considered a financial overhead and not an investment. A sustainable and "healthy" corporate culture cannot be promoted under such conditions. Each crisis increases the drive to reduce costs and therefore limits or reduces measures and programmes for the promotion of health. This then closes the "vicious circle" and confirms already existing prejudices, according to which workplace health promotion programmes are only suitable in times of "fair weather" and are regarded as an opportunity for cost savings in difficult times.

The current crisis, in the view of Dr. Jürgen Pfister, Director of Corporate Human Resources at the METRO Group, one of the world’s biggest retailing enterprises with 290,000 workers in 150 countries, therefore also highlights a crisis in some traditional management concepts. The intangible assets such as engagement, motivation, health, customer orientation and qualification are central drivers for the performance of a corporation, but play only a subordinate role in the business valuation and control generally.

Rita Süssmuth, President of the EfH network, and the member organisations agree with the approach which can be summed up thus: "Especially at this time, one should not save at the wrong end". Despite difficult circumstances and restrictions to find solutions to combat the current crisis, companies need to maintain quality and employability among the workforce.


Investment in health is always worthwhile

Like most international vehicle makers, Scania is suffering the effects of the economic downturn, but Thomas Karlsson, Senior Vice President Powertrain Production, made the company’s position very clear: 'Use the crisis as an opportunity'. He said Scania employees continued to represent their most important asset and every avenue was being pursued to maintain their personnel in the main production facilities. The concept used in Germany - reduced working hours in connection with supported further education programmes - is also implemented at Scania, however with one special feature: All further education programmes are conducted internally according to the Train-the-Trainer-principle, meaning the supervisors are personally conducting the training for their subordinate personnel who then pass on their knowledge and experience to the next organisational level down. "We are doing this, because we will reach our production goals, which are geared for expansion, with a better qualified workforce when this crisis is over", said Thomas Karlsson, when he explained the thinking behind the company’s chosen corporate strategy.

Scania is also investing heavily in the health of its employees. The company maintains an extensive internal health centre with a very versatile programme for the promotion of a healthy lifestyle. Employees are able to participate in comprehensive health training, which, on application by the individual, is financed by their local plant management. The operation and take-up of the scheme confirms that production managers consider health to be a valuable investment - even in times of economic crisis. Forward-thinking policies such as this also contributed to the obvious pride of Scania employees, despite the economic gloom.

Like Scania, other corporations are demonstrating that, with innovative solutions, they remain committed to improving the health of their workforce. The METRO Group, Unilever and the Allgemeine Hospitalgesellschaft (AHG) are among those who have implemented "Employee Assistance Programmes" - EAP.

This service enables all employees and their relatives to seek confidential counselling and help with concerns via external, contractually-bound professional service providers. Initially they receive advice via the telephone and, if required, personal counselling for any kind of problem. In addition, the "Family Service" provides support in matters of child care or care for relatives. Another EfH member, the Caixa Geral de Depósitos, Portugal's largest bank based in Lisbon, arranges psychosocial crisis intervention for branch employees who suffer a trauma. As an early intervention, it effectively combats post-traumatic stress disorders.

In conclusion, investment in health pays dividends. The well-being of employees is not a luxury for good times only, but should be an inherent part of on-going corporate policy. Successful concepts and practical action approaches are available. It may not be an easy time to effect changes in the value orientation of commercial enterprises, but it is just the right time to make sure we come out of this crisis stronger. This crucial topic will occupy the attention of Enterprise for Health going forward.

 

 

"The Business Case for health and corporate culture can today be included in the organisational reporting system via the integration of health-related performance figures. An important starting point is the integration of the 'health topic' into the general routine of employee attitude questionnaires. This makes health an important issue in a company and fosters a continual improvement process, which can promote health at the workplace."

Prof. Dr. Holger Pfaff, Director of the Institute for Medical Sociology, Health Research and Rehabilitation Science (IMVR), University of Cologne, Germany
(Keynote Speaker, EfH Business Meeting "Healthy Corporate Cultures in Times of Crisis", May 25 – 26, 2009, Stockholm, Sweden)



"A strong human-orientation in job design results in improved coping with the consequences of the crisis. We accept that the confirmation of motivational and economic benefits will facilitate the acceptance of human-oriented job design by organisations."

Prof. Dr. Peter Richter, Dresden University of Technology, Department of Psychology, Work and Organisational Psychology, Germany

(Keynote Speaker, EfH Business Meeting "Healthy Corporate Cultures in Times of Crisis", May 25 – 26, 2009, Stockholm, Sweden)

 

 

 


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