I spoke to Jeffrey Pfeffer, the author of the new book, Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance – And What We Can Do About It. Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He is the author or co-author of fourteen books and a sought-after expert on power and leadership. He is widely recognized as one of the leading management experts in the world. Pfeffer was visiting professor at London Business School, Harvard Business School, Singapore Management University and IESE.
In the interview he talks about his research for the book, the burnout crisis, the wellbeing industry and how technology keeps us working around the clock.
Dan Schawbel: Why did you choose to study the impact of management on employee health and business performance? Did anything surprise you while researching the book?
Jeffrey Pepper: As a member of the Stanford Faculty and Staff Human Resources Committee, and after sitting with the CHROs of some of the largest companies on the Hewitt Human Capital Leadership Council, I was impressed by the almost obsessive focus on health care costs on the part of these largely self-insured organizations . However, with this focus on healthcare costs, the emphasis has been primarily on prices for various services and drugs, as well as planning to drive more cost-conscious individual decision-making. To the extent that the focus was on prevention rather than health care cost rehabilitation, the focus was on individual behaviors such as exercise, diet and smoking. It struck me that employers may be overlooking the profound impact of the work environment on both individual health behaviors and morbidity and mortality outcomes and costs.
As I delved into the subject and began studying the extensive epidemiological research literature, I also noticed that many of the things that caused unhealthy behavior and disease – work environment dimensions such as long hours, lack of workplace control, and work-family conflicts – were also workplace practices, which did not really benefit employers apart from their impact on health and health care costs.
In short, it seemed to me that much of the modern work environment created a lose-lose situation in which employers were doing things that did not benefit anyone – neither them nor the people, whose mental and physical well-being in important ways from what was happening for these people depended on the job. Consequently, it seemed necessary to me to shed light on this problem and spark a social movement, or perhaps several such movements, to put workers ‘welfare at the center of employers’ action. Hence dying for a paycheck.
Shabbles: Our research shows that employees are working harder than ever before with no extra pay, and this has caused a burnout crisis. How does your research reflect this and what can employers do to resolve it?
Pepper: Your research is absolutely correct. Especially in the United States, where working hours have increased so much that the country is now at the top in terms of hours worked, people are working more and more – and not necessarily enjoying greater financial well-being. Employers need to recognize that at every, and I mean every level of analysis – nations, industries, and individual companies – extensive research is being conducted to establish the truth of what common sense should hold true: that the longer hours work, so does work productivity from. I summarize some of this research in the chapter on Working Hours in Dying for a Paycheck. So more people working – the burnout in your words – does not increase productivity or, in many cases, overall performance. Employers should reduce working hours and work pressure – which in the end makes you sick and increases fluctuation. And the evidence is overwhelming that sick people are less productive.
Shabbles: The stressed workforce has spawned the wellbeing / wellness industry and corporate sponsored programs. How do you assess this trend and the effectiveness of these programs?
Pepper: Wellness programs for businesses and the wellness industry are extensive and costly. But the evidence on the effectiveness of such interventions is mixed at best. And that’s because, in my opinion, these interventions are aimed at the wrong things. From extensive research summarized in Dying for a Paycheck, we know that individual behaviors such as overeating, smoking, excessive alcohol use, and substance abuse are related to the stress, including work-related stress, experienced by individuals. Rather than trying to get people to behave healthierly, workplace wellbeing initiatives would be more effective if they focused on preventing the stressful aspects of the work environment that cause unhealthy individual behavior in the first place.
Put simply, companies need to build a health culture – and that starts with creating work environments that help people thrive, both physically and mentally. Not trying to fix the damage toxic workplaces do through “programs” of limited intervention.
Shabbles: Some countries have 5 weeks of compulsory vacation (Finland, France, etc.) or free health care (Canada), while America ranks second in terms of worker protection. What can we learn from other countries about creating a health work environment?
Pepper: In the US, about 50,000 people die each year because they don’t have access to health care because they don’t have health insurance. I find this fact morally reprehensible. In the US, around a quarter of all employees have no paid time off – neither sick days nor paid vacation. People will work sick and thereby make others, such as colleagues and customers, sick by exposing them to colds and flu, for example. That seems unscrupulous. The US stands out from the advanced industrialized countries in that there is no worker protection. Two colleagues and I estimated that about half of the 120,000 additional deaths annually from workplace exposure were preventable. I find this toll horrific. The US, which claims to be “pro-life”, should care about human life not just at the beginning and at the end, but throughout people’s lives, including their professional lives.
Shabbles: Technology has expanded the work day to 24/7 as we are always connected. What can be done to limit work outside the network?
Pepper: The idea that you should be connected all the time needs to be changed. Put simply, it is a matter of corporate culture and expectations. When Dean Baker, the chief human resources officer for Patagonia clothing company, was working for Sears, he received an email about the work late on Christmas Eve afternoon. When he replied the next morning, the answer he got was, “Why did it take you so long?” If someone did that at Patagonia, they wouldn’t work there anymore. There and in other companies that care about the well-being and work-life balance of their employees, it is expected that people, except in exceptional cases, should be “offline” when they finish their working day – and that is downtime to respect. France has of course passed a regulation restricting the use of e-mail outside working hours by employers to their employees. Every employer can and should do this. People work better when they have time to relax, sleep, and refresh. Burning people out only drives them away and definitely leads to poor work performance.