When you hear the term “employee wellness,” do you also think about “workplace bullying”?
That question has been buzzing through my head since yesterday, when it was my pleasure to speak at a program on creating healthy workplaces, sponsored by the New England Work & Family Association (NEWFA) — a group of human resources and wellness program professionals committed to supporting work-life balance — and hosted by the Boston College Center for Work and Family.
A tale of two halves
The first half of the program was an interesting panel discussion about workplace wellness programs, featuring presentations by NEWFA members who have developed and managed wellness programs. We heard about a variety of useful, pro-active initiatives, including health education and coaching (e.g., nutrition, exercise, smoking cessation), stress reduction, and mindfulness training.
The second half of the program was my presentation about workplace bullying and the challenges facing HR. Although I framed my remarks within the context of promoting healthy workplaces, it was clear that my piece was about the “dark” side of work. How else to describe a phenomenon that reduces productivity and morale and triggers a long list of negative health outcomes?
Will the twain meet?
Both pieces of the program related to the same general topic, namely, the creation and sustenance of healthy workplaces that embrace both productivity and employee well-being. However, I couldn’t help but notice how the room tensed up as my talk explored the details about workplace bullying.
As I told the group, workplace bullying is a very threatening topic to many organizations, especially when the behavior is frequent and comes from a top-down direction. After all, boss-to-subordinate bullying is the most common combination, at least in the U.S. Furthermore, bullying and mobbing behaviors tend to be fueled by organizational cultures that enable or even encourage them. In short, bullying at work often points to responsibility at the top.
Contrasts in dealing with senior management
Perhaps this explains a fundamental difference in how and why senior management is consulted by HR.
Speakers on the panel about employee wellness explained that they often didn’t have to go to top management for specific approval about every new initiative they developed. In some cases, they simply went ahead with a program that eventually would become a regular offering, with no apparent pushback from the corner office.
When I talked about incorporating workplace bullying prevention and response into HR practices and training, however, I saw knowing nods in response to my advice to assess management tolerance for such initiatives and to consult legal counsel on liability exposure.
An integrated perspective
Perhaps I’m making excuses for the pizza I enjoyed the other night, but I don’t think we can de-couple bad habits such as unhealthy eating and smoking from undue stress at work. Indeed, it strikes me as ironic that we can talk more openly about wellness programs designed to reduce stress and improve health habits, while sometimes sweeping under the rug work-related conditions — such as bullying — that create a need for them.
In short, the quest for healthy workplaces cannot ignore fundamental conditions of work. It’s why I am thankful that NEWFA and Boston College created a program that allowed us to consider the workplace in a more balanced light.