What’s a psychologically healthy workplace?

Each year, the American Psychological Association sponsors a Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award program, recognizing employers who excel in these five categories:

  • “Employee involvement”
  • “Work-life balance”
  • “Employee growth & development”
  • “Health & safety”
  • “Employee recognition”

These are all important considerations, and employers that value them in practice are likely to be better places to work than those that do not.  However, as phrased, the five APA categories turn the question of what constitutes a psychologically healthy workplace into something of a safe, non-threatening HR checklist

What’s missing from the APA formulation is a deeper inquiry into psychological health at work that is harder to describe in a categorical sense but that may hold a more significant key.  Here are eight questions more likely to reveal the presence (or lack thereof) of a psychologically healthy workplace:

  • Is there a sense of zest, “buzz,” and opportunity in the workplace?
  • Do employees feel they are valued and treated with respect and dignity?
  • Is the organizational culture friendly, inclusive, and supportive?
  • Is organizational decision making fair, transparent, and evenhanded?
  • Are diversities of all types accepted or merely tolerated?
  • Does the organization face or dodge tough questions concerning employee relations?
  • Are allegations of mistreatment of employees handled fairly and honestly, even when the alleged wrongdoers are in positions of power?
  • Are compensation and reward systems fair and transparent?

These inquiries implicate organizational culture and power, which may threaten bad and/or insecure employers.  But if we want to get to the heart of whether a given workplace is psychologically healthy, we must ask these more difficult questions.

To learn more about the APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award Program, go here.

[Addition: For a slightly revised version of these questions, see “NWI’s Eightfold Path to a Psychologically Healthy Workplace”]

10 responses

  1. I totally agree, David. My guess is that the APA uses those criteria partly because they are more easily quantifiable, e.g., by looking at published policies about family leave and flex time, saftey records, employee award programs, etc. But a workplace can have all the programs it wants that look good on paper, while employees are still psychologically miserable. Few workplaces seem to care about the psychological factors, and when they *do* take the time to carry out surveys, employees who fear losing their jobs in this climate may not even answer them honestly (or at all) if the surveys come from HR and employees don’t trust HR. Which seems to be the rule rather than the exception, unfortunately.

    • Kathy, yes, to be fair to the APA, it’s true that questions such as mine are not easily translated into a ratings or awards system. Thank you for pointing out the important distinction between how programs look on paper and whether they equate with employee well-being. (Readers, Kathy Rospenda teaches in the psychiatry department of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and she is building a terrific body of work on workplace harassment and discrimination, among other topics.)

  2. I agree that some components are missing in the assessment. APA’s emphasis on stress in the workplace bi-annual confernce points to an arena which is likely under-assessed in the healthy workplace awards. We have objective and normed measures available to assess stress in the workplace which from many accounts points toward work-related illesses and exacerbation of chronic illnesses anong with general quality of life concerns. Unless we actually sample the workforce directly, perhaps via an online survey, we will alway be vuneralbe to be best packaged application. The cost of assessment would be higher but the objective data obtained could be balanced against the remaining application componets.

    • Curtis, thank you for your response and explanation of some of the inherent challenges in making sound assessments of applications for the Awards. The questions I pose in my blog posting are grounded in experience and observation, as well as insights from OHP, relational-cultural psychology, and writings on human dignity generally, but they escape easy measure in surveys and studies.

      I hope that my post did not come across as a wholesale broadside against the APA. In fact, what I see is a bit of a disconnect between the APA’s openness to multidisciplinary perspectives at the Stress at Work conference (including mine — I’ve presented twice, and the insights gained from the conference have been genuine learning highlights for me) and the somewhat wooden criteria of the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards.

      It does seem that a mediocre or even lousy employer (from an OHP perspective, that is) could “game” the Award criteria to look pretty darn good, when in reality, to borrow from Kathy Rospenda’s comment, the employees actually are psychologically miserable.

  3. Pingback: The People Group — The Psychological Train of Pain Runs through Many Workplaces

  4. As the head of APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program and the program’s primary research consultant, we were surprised to see a recent blog posting that appeared on Minding the Workplace about the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Criteria. The author astutely pointed out that practices in these five areas do not necessarily result in a psychologically healthy workplace, and he was most assuredly correct.

    However, the author of the blog posting overlooked several key points about both the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Model and APA’s award criteria that deserve further clarification.

    First, a psychologically healthy workplace is one that fosters employee health and well-being, while at the same time enhancing organizational performance. Although this is typically done through the implementation of a comprehensive set of programs and policies, the mere presence of these workplace practices does not guarantee the that organization will meet the goal of optimizing employee and organizational outcomes.

    Second, the psychologically healthy workplace model emphasizes the role of effective upward and downward communication mechanisms in organizations. This is essential to ensure that programs and policies meet the needs of the employees they are designed to benefit (through upward channels) and are effectively utilized and supported throughout the organization (downward channels). Clearly, employees will not respond “as expected” to programs and policies that are not supported, that are not well communicated, and that do not meet their needs.

    Third, and perhaps most importantly, the model emphasizes the need for a culture, structure, and context that supports the programs and practices in place. Hence, one size does not fit all. The Psychologically Healthy Workplace Model requires custom-tailoring of programs and policies to address these variables and meet the unique needs of an organization and its workforce.

    These three points were not mentioned in the blog posting on Minding the Workplace, but they help to address the key “questions” that the author poses. These were also discussed in more detail in an article that focused specifically on APA’s program.

    With regard to the selection of our award winners, the assessment process does not rely solely on company documents and “checklists.” During the application process, organizations complete two written forms reporting on and describing their workplace practices. Applicants are also required to identify specific organizational and employee outcomes that have occurred as a result of their workplace programs and report numerous employee and organizational benefits, usually with concrete, quantifiable data.

    After the applicant completes the quantitative and qualitative instruments, a team of psychologists visits the organization, tours the facilities, observes the work environment and meets with employees (management and line staff). Employees also complete an anonymous employee questionnaire. These site visits and employee surveys collect information about the way employees feel about the organization, their physical and psychological well-being, and their perspectives on the different programs and policies in place.

    After a rigorous data analysis and a comprehensive evaluation of the qualitative responses, we select our finalists. Finalists complete a disclosure form that asks them to report any recent or pending employment-related lawsuits or complaints and are subject to extensive reviews conducted by our legal and regulatory affairs and public relations staff.

    So, while the points made by the Minding the Workplace blog are well taken, a closer inspection of the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program reveals that those points are actively addressed by APA in its model, as well as through its systematic evaluation and selection process.

    • Thank you, Drs. Ballard and Grawitch, for your thoughtful and specific response to my critique of the APA’s criteria. Because your points, too, are well-taken as well as appreciated, I’m going to rest on my original post and let readers take in everyone’s comments.

      One point I’d like to add, however, is that I should’ve distinguished more clearly between the APA criteria (the main focus of my critique) and the APA’s vetting and evaluation of award applicants. While I’ll stand on my original assertion that the eight questions I pose get us more quickly to the heart of the matter, I want to make clear that in no way was I questioning the credibility of the Awards process.

      I have had the pleasure of presenting at programs co-sponsored by the APA, and the reception towards those of us with different areas of expertise has always been a warm one. I appreciate your thoughtful critique of, and response to, my blog posting.


  5. These issues are raised from time to time and our communications don’t always discuss these aspects of the model and evaluation process, so I hope our response helped to shed some light on what goes on behind the scenes of our program. Thank you for raising these important issues and giving us the opportunity to respond. Creating a work environment that is good for employees and the bottom line indeed requires openness to multidisciplinary perspectives and constructive dialogue is always welcome.

  6. Pingback: Follow up: Psychologically healthy dialogue « Minding the Workplace

  7. Pingback: The Psychological Train of Pain Runs through Many Workplaces - The People Group

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