Creating a Psychologically Fit Firm Benefits Employees – and the Bottom Line

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Faced with skyrocketing healthcare costs, global competition, and economic uncertainty, many of today’s businesses are recognizing that promoting a psychologically healthy workplace isn’t just good for employees’ health and well-being – it’s affecting the bottom line, as well.

According to the American Institute of Stress, job stress alone is estimated to cost US industries $300 billion a year in absenteeism, diminished productivity, employee turnover, and direct medical, legal, and insurance fees. New research also indicates that depression is a leading cause of disability in the United States, resulting in almost 400 million disability days per year.

The good news, however, is that research on workplaces that have taken a proactive approach to their employees’ mental health is incredibly encouraging – making it much easier to make the business case for creating a psychologically healthy workplace.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), studies on psychologically healthy workplaces – those that foster employee health and well-being while enhancing the company’s performance – consistently show that minimizing workplace stress and fostering an emotionally healthy workplace reduces employee turnover and optimizes performance.

Most recently, the winners of the APA’s 2015 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards (PHWA) far outperformed the national average in terms of employee retention. Employee turnover at PHWA winners was half the national average, while employee motivation registered at 94 percent – nearly 24 percent higher than the national average.

“Creating a psychologically healthy workplace can have a big impact,” says David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA, head of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence. “Not only do employees feel valued and heard, they’re also more likely to participate in health and wellness offerings, share the organization’s values, have higher levels of job satisfaction, and say they are more motivated to give it their all.”

Perhaps no one can understand the importance of the link between employee happiness and employee retention better than CPA firm leaders, whose efforts to attract and retain top talent in a tight market have reached a fever pitch.

There is little doubt that working for an emotionally healthy workplace – once a “to-do” item on many CPAs’ bucket lists – has now moved to the top of their “must-have” list when looking at future employers.

In short, today’s CPAs don’t just expect comprehensive mental healthcare benefits and resources as part of their employment package; they expect their employers to minimize workplace stress, support and promote a healthy lifestyle, and keep up firm morale.

Five Successful Healthy Workplace Practices
So how can CPA leaders create a psychologically healthy firm, one that benefits both employees and the organization?

Ballard says they can start by building a “strong, vibrant organizational culture” that weaves psychologically healthy workplace practices into the daily operations of the firm.

“A psychologically healthy workplace goes beyond simply providing mental healthcare benefits and an employee assistance program,” Ballard says. “What really affects people’s emotional well-being is what they experience day-to-day on the job.”

While there is no one-size-fits-all template for a psychologically healthy workplace, organizations that fit that description all tend to promote the following five workplace practices:

1. Employee involvement. Empowering workers by involving them in decision-making and giving them increased job autonomy in meaningful ways, including self-managed work teams, employee committees or task forces, and continuous improvement teams.
2.Work-life balance. Acknowledging employees have responsibilities and lives outside of work and helping individuals better manage these multiple demands (i.e., children, family needs, eldercare, community involvement, etc.). These companies offer flexible work arrangements, like flextime and telecommuting, assistance with childcare and eldercare, and availability of benefits for family members and domestic partners.
3. Employee growth and development. Allowing employees to expand their knowledge, skills, and abilities, and giving them the opportunity to use these new skills on the job.
4. Health and safety. Promoting initiatives that maximize the physical and mental health of employees. Beyond just benefits, these initiatives include:

  • Stress management, weight loss, and smoking cessation programs
  • Access to fitness facilities
  • Grief counseling
  • Alcohol abuse programs
  • Employee assistance programs

5. Employee recognition. Recognizing and rewarding employees, both individually and collectively, for their contributions to the organization through fair wages, competitive benefits, employee awards and recognition ceremonies, and performance-based bonuses and pay increases.

All of these practices can have a significant impact on employee well-being, performance, and morale, Ballard says, but employee involvement is the most critical mechanism because it overlaps all areas of the employee’s daily life, including the mental health programs themselves.

“If employees help design and implement these workplace programs, they will develop resources that are truly relevant to them and ensure there are no barriers to access,” Ballard says. “They will truly get what they need.”

Communication, he adds, is also key. Programs that are top-down and paternalistic (“we feel this is what’s best for you”) will get nothing but pushback. Programs formed with employee feedback (“what can we do for you”) will get buy-in.

Tackle Reducing Stress First
Ballard suggests companies just beginning their psychologically healthy workplace initiatives start by tackling workplace stress, which is significant among American adults.

It is imperative, however, to make sure your stress-relief solutions are part of a comprehensive, “big-picture” outlook that addresses the sources of the stress, Ballard says.

“Think about how what you are doing from a systems perspective affects your organization’s psychological health,” Ballard says. “Don’t just give your employees ‘stress relief armor’ and place them right back into a stressful situation.”

It’s also critical that your mental-health initiative has real support from direct supervisors who manage employees on a day-to-day basis. “If supervisors are still telling employees they need to hit their numbers above all else, nothing will change,” Ballard adds.

To see how a CPA firm positively and proactively addressed their employees’ emotional health, while still managing to deal with busy season stress and long hours, the APA suggests firm leaders study the example set by Atlanta-based accounting and consulting firm Porter Keadle Moore (PKM) LLC,winner of the APA’s 2008 NationalPsychologically Healthy Workplace Award.

PKM excels in many areas, Ballard says, but two of the most notable are its creative approaches to work-life balance and employee involvement.

To encourage work-life balance, supervisors at PKM recognize an employee’s productivity rather than hours worked. They provide autonomy and flexibility by meeting employees’ scheduling needs with uniquely tailored solutions, such as flexible scheduling, part-time employment, and work-from-home opportunities under special circumstances. All flex arrangements are fully supported by the firm’s home-office technology solutions.

The firm also helps employees prepare for the stress of busy season by closing its office during the last week of December. During the summer, PKM closes two hours early on Fridays so employees can jump-start their weekends.

PKM champions employee involvement in all interactions, as well. The firm trains employees to seek, receive, and use formal and informal feedback as part of the daily work environment; involves associates in job candidate interviews and screening; and through INNOFIX, a “program that encourages ideas and innovation to flow in all directions, employees identify and solve business issues using fun, game-like competitions that develop individual problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills,” according to the APA.

“Creating a psychologically healthy workplace is a strategic imperative, especially in a high-pressure work environment like CPA firms,” Ballard says. “Employees who are at their best drive business performance and sustainable results.”

Other Tips to Consider
Clare Miller, director of the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, a subsidiary of the APA, believes there definitely has been a shift over the past decade in employer awareness of the importance of workplace mental health.

“Employers used to be more focused on talking about the numbers – the costs of untreated, or poorly treated, mental health issues in terms of absenteeism, lost productivity, and healthcare costs,” Miller says. “But today, we see employers that are more proactive. They are focused on implementing strategies that can make a positive difference in their employees’ mental health. They understand it’s a return on investment.”

Miller says a cultural shift has also contributed to the renewed focus on workplace mental health. Since the recession, she says, there is a heightened awareness of the fact that people are working longer and harder, as well as recognition that people can reach a certain breaking point if pushed too hard.

“Americans are more aware of the fact that we have to take care of our minds and bodies to stay healthy and productive,” Miller says, noting that high-profile cases of suicide have also increased the national conversation around mental health.

“I think our shifting attitudes around mental health also reflect the kinds of jobs our country now relies upon,” Miller adds. “Our labor force relies more and more on knowledge-based work. We have to make difficult decisions quickly and juggle a lot of information, and if we’re not doing well emotionally, it has a real impact on our cognition.”

Miller offers the following five tips for employers on how to create a mentally healthy workplace for their employees.

1. Engage leadership so that messages about mental health come from the top. This gets supervisors and managers on board and sends a powerful message to employees that their mental health truly matters.
2. Create a culture that encourages employees to look out for one another. Use the ICU Program to teach employees how to recognize signs of distress and reach out to coworkers.
3. Promote what you already offer. Resources, such as employee assistance programs, are often woefully underutilized. Never miss an opportunity to get the word out about mental health benefits, wellness programs, and employee assistance programs.
4. Deliver health messages to employees that focus specifically on mental health, especially during times of high stress. Reinforce that mental health services are confidential and that it’s a sign of strength to use them.
5. Use your power as a healthcare purchaser and ask questions about mental health when making purchasing decisions. Remember, mental health parity is the law of the land.

About Deanna Arteaga

Deanna White

Deanna Arteaga is a professional freelance writer and public relations specialist who for the past six years has covered CPA industry trends for AccountingWEB. She also writes about CPA firm marketing, higher education and professional development for CPAs, and workplace trends in the accounting profession. She has more than 20 years of journalism and public relations experience, including her tenure as a former newspaper reporter in suburban Chicago where she covered breaking news, municipal politics, and state legislative issues.

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