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It’s all about having a say
Ask any occupational health nurse, and he or she will likely agree that involving employees in workplace problem solving fosters an atmosphere of inclusion, and when employees feel that they are members of a team and that their presence matters, they’re likely to be happier and healthier employees. A study by the University of Georgia’s Work-place Health Group, based in Athens, has backed up this widely held belief with empirical data, and in the process found that the employees who benefit most from team participation are minority workers.
The study, which surveyed 1,400 employees of a national retailer, was based on a "very simple model," says Mark Wilson, HSD, one of the co-directors of the Workplace Health Group, a program within the university’s College of Education that conducts research on workplace health and organizational effectiveness. "Healthy, happy workers are productive workers; and healthy, happy, productive workers make a successful organization," Wilson says. "Happy, healthy workers feel good, like their work, like the people they work with, show up for work, and there’s less turnover and less absenteeism. It’s a very basic idea, but no one had shown it empirically before."
The Workplace Health Group’s study provided support for the link between employee satisfaction and organization success, Wilson says, but it also provided some surprising results about which employees specifically benefit from policies and practices that involve them in decision making and problem solving.
The research group evaluated a problem-solving approach in the workplace, in which representative teams of employees, called ACTion Teams, met to identify workplace concerns and then developed action plans to address the problems. The model and teams were designed to increase employee participation and decision making.
The employees for whom this approach seemed to bear the most benefit, Wilson says, are minorities — in the case of this study, predominantly African-American and Hispanic workers.
Having minority workers participate on problem-solving teams helps to create a more inclusionary work environment based on shared goals rather than demographics, Wilson says the study showed. The study included questionnaire responses from workers at stores that did and did not have ACTion Teams. The analysis focused on responses from black and Hispanic employees, each of which represented about 7% of workers.
In follow-up surveys, stores with ACTion Teams had significant improvements in organizational climate and worker health and well-being. These reflected benefits for all workers at the stores, not just those directly participating in the teams. The improvements seemed at least partly related to reducing the impact of stressful times, including an economic recession and changes in company leadership. "The whole idea is that if you make people feel valued, that they have input and that their input matters, then they feel good, they show up, work harder, and aren’t absent as much," says Wilson.
For black and Hispanic employees, the benefits appeared even greater than for white employees. Minority workers were especially likely to perceive improvements in organizational and co-worker support and in access to supervisors, Wilson says. Representation on the ACTion Teams made the views of minority workers heard, thus helping to make the workplace more inclusionary. But the improvements in work climate did not affect employees’ ratings of work stress levels or general health. However, longer follow-up may show benefits in employee stress, productivity, and other health and well-being indicators, Wilson says.
The full results of the study appear in the July issue of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine’s Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
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