Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mental health issues in the workplace

A frequent source of unhappiness I see has to do with a psychologically unhealthy work environment.  I am interested to survey the research literature on this subject, but for starters here are a few thoughts:

1) many businesses simply do not seem to value the idea of simply treating employees well.  Instead, a short-sighted view is taken, of attempting to maximize the work output or efficiency of the workers, while minimizing costs.   On a short term basis (perhaps confirmed by mathematical models composed by the recent business or commerce graduate who is now in a managerial position), this leads to more profit for the business with fewer expenses.  On a longer-term basis, however, this pattern leads to poor morale, loss of good or talented employees, higher rates of absenteeism, lower productivity, lower worker loyalty, which in turn must undoubtedly be perceived or intuited by customers, all of which would severely dampen the prosperity of the business.

2) counter-examples exist, of particular businesses which treat employees very well, allowing them more autonomy, healthy scheduling, security, non-authoritarian leadership, even paid time to attend fitness activities, etc.  I can think of a few examples like this in which the business and the employees are prospering together, with a very positive public image as well.

3) I have to wonder if the current educational system biases the business world to perpetuate these types of problems.  University programs in commerce, economics, or business may have a variety of biases:  a money or wealth-acquisition-oriented value system may be very frequent in students drawn to these areas.  The programs themselves, I observe, may be dealing with subject matter that involves very interesting, complex, and subtle interactions between human motivations, emotions, and behaviours.  Yet the programs tend to have very little instruction or requirement for students to study the obviously related fields of psychology, sociology, ethics, history, political science, etc.  Unfortunately this may equip graduates, who may be involved in group leadership and policy-making decisions affecting thousands of people, with strong profit-optimization skills, but very little wisdom or education about human nature or a foundation in altruistic values. 

4) In any case, I think many employer-employee interactions are like a dysfunctional family:  the "parents" either too authoritarian or enmeshed, or too detached and uninvolved.  Usually there are problems with communication.   Unfortunately,  it is usually very difficult for this type of "family" to come for group therapy:  it seems more common for these types of group problems to become more entrenched with time.

The field of "corporate psychology" seems to address some of these issues.  I will be interested to survey this literature in the coming months, and hopefully add to this post in a helpful way. Aside from therapeutic ideas to make beneficial changes in business group dynamics, I wonder if it could be a useful trend in the future to allow free economic forces to help things along:  if one is considering being a customer or an investor in a business, how about checking out how happy the employees are?  It would be a service to the community, in the name of public and individual mental health,  to support businesses which provide a healthy community not only to the public, but to their own employees.

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