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June 16, 2009 | Volume 3 | Number 6
June 16, 2009
By Larissa K. Barber & Matthew J. Grawitch, PhD
When a healthy workplace practice fails to achieve the desired results or anticipated ROI, some organizations become disenchanted and all-too-quickly abandon their efforts. However, workplace practice ineffectiveness may primarily stem from practice design and implementation issues rather than the practices themselves.
Many organizations rush to implement the latest “wellness” or “work-life balance” programs featured in top business magazines or adopted by their competitors, which, in some cases, can trigger a string of bad experiences and waste financial resources. Achieving a healthy workplace is not necessarily expensive, but with a few major missteps it certainly can be a financial drain. Therefore, managers need to consider the interplay among the employee, the organization, and the practice itself when adopting healthy workplace practices.
This article outlines an approach to psychologically healthy workplace practices that focuses on fit, as well as managerial steps to maximize practice effectiveness.
One approach to understanding the interplay between employees, the organization, and workplace practices is to consider the role of person-environment (P-E) fit. P-E fit takes an interactionist approach to predicting employee outcomes by focusing on the alignment between employee and organization (Edwards, 1996; Edwards & Cooper, 1990; French, Caplan, & Harrison, 1982; Lewin, 1951). That is, well-being and performance are not predicted by employee or by organizational characteristics (e.g., an employee that works well in teams, a job with high autonomy), but by the match between employee and organization. For example, extraverted individuals may thrive in positions emphasizing teamwork and face-to-face interactions, but may feel out of place and perform poorly in independent and socially-isolated positions.
P-E fit includes person-organization (P-O) fit, needs-supplies (N-S) fit, and demands-abilities (D-A) fit—all of which influence individual outcomes (Edwards, 1996). P-O fit occurs when employees and the organization possess congruent values, goals, or behavioral expectations (Kristof, 1996; Muchinksy & Monahan, 1987). Thus, with P-O fit, the goal is to maximize similarity between employee and organization.
On the other hand, N-S and D-A fit are considered complimentary in that the employee or the organization provides attributes that the other is lacking (Cable & DeRue, 2002). N-S fit considers how job rewards fulfill employee needs, and D-A fit considers employee perceptions that competencies and abilities are sufficient to perform a particular job.
The P-E fit perspective provides an excellent framework for linking workplace practices, organizational characteristics, and employee characteristics in a way that maximizes employee and organizational outcomes (i.e., employee-organization-practice fit). These three factors can overlap in four ways to produce employee-organization fit, employee-practice fit, organization-practice fit, and employee-organization-practice fit (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Employee-Organization-Practice Fit
Employee-Organization Fit. Employee-organization fit is similar to the original concept of P-O fit. In the psychologically healthy workplace context, it specifically considers the alignment between the expectations of the employee and the expectations of the organization. When these expectations are aligned, there is an increased chance that a given workplace practice will serve its intended purpose (whether that purpose is to increase work-life balance without decreasing productivity, provide recognition that employees value, etc.). In line with expectancy theory (Vroom, 1964), this sort of alignment enhances motivation for employees to appropriately use a given practice because they can see (1) how a particular practice is consistent with their own values and (2) that the practice is consistent with organizational values.
Effective top-down (manager-driven) and bottom-up (employee-driven) communication strategies help to ensure that both parties will have similar, realistic expectations regarding the purpose of a particular workplace practice from both a well-being and performance perspective. This can help prevent misunderstandings that may lead to frustration, cynicism, or resistance during the implementation stage.
Employee-Practice and Organization-Practice Fit. With the introduction of healthy workplace practices to the original P-E model, we can also consider other two-way relationships (employee-practice fit and organization-practice fit) along with the integration of all three (employee-organization-practice fit). Employee- and organization-practice fit each relies on two sources of complementary alignment: needs-supplies and demands-abilities. Both types of alignment can promote the effectiveness of a particular practice or initiative.
When it comes to N-S alignment, the workplace practice must specifically address both organizational and employee needs (i.e., it must be a win-win). If a practice specifically benefits the employee but not the organization (as in the case of exorbitant vacation time), employees may run into organizational obstacles (i.e., lack of support) when trying to utilize such benefits. Alternatively, when a practice consistently provides only a benefit for the organization (as in the case of mandatory overtime), employee resistance is likely to occur. Thus, being able to meet the needs of both employee and organization is essential to maximize the effectiveness of any practice.
When it comes to D-A alignment, employee abilities and organizational capabilities must be able to meet the demands (e.g., logistical, financial, technological) of a specific practice to achieve desired effects (i.e., employees and organization must both possess sufficient competencies and resources to make the practice effective). For example, many safety programs assume that employees have the necessary competencies to identify and address safety issues in the workplace. If they lack the necessary competencies, a new safety program is likely to produce mediocre results at best.
As another example, most telecommuting options require sufficient technological resources to make them effective. If an organization lacks the technology or the financial resources necessary to upgrade the technology, then such a program is unlikely to achieve maximum success. Thus, organizations need to consider the demands required of a new practice (on both employees and organizations) and whether or not sufficient resources exist to meet those demands.
The employee-organization-practice fit approach suggests that practice effectiveness is best achieved by ensuring that employees and organizational leaders are on the same page regarding the purpose of a practice, that the needs of employees and of the organization are being met by the practice, and that the resource and competency demands of a new practice can be met by employees and by the organization. Figure 2 provides an overview of the major steps involved in properly managing psychologically healthy workplace practices.
Figure 2: Healthy Workplace Practice Process Model
The first phase is practice discovery, where the process team identifies (1) key outcomes to target for improvement, (2) key needs of the organization and employees, and (3) practices that could address these needs and outcomes. To ensure overall fit, this should involve preliminary data gathering and feedback sessions where organizational members at all levels can be involved in prioritizing needs and identifying the best practice options available.
Once viable options are identified, the next stage is practice development, which primarily involves tailoring the practice to fit organizational capabilities and identifying employee knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for effective utilization.
Following successful development, practice implementation entails taking action with the initiative, but also making sure to periodically monitor delivery effectiveness and utilization. This on-going monitoring may identify issues that were overlooked in the development and discovery stages that should be refined. Sometimes, implementation may occur best as a pilot program that can be evaluated using criteria identified as important by the organization. Once the practice has been refined, a summative evaluation should occur and if effective, the practice should be institutionalized within the organizational culture.
The evaluation and institutionalization phase provides data to ensure that the practice meets the well-being and/or performance objectives it was designed to address. This stage also includes the need to develop organizational and departmental approaches to ensure institutionalization (e.g., support mechanisms, rewards, incentives, and punishments; Zucker, 1987).
Psychologically healthy workplace practices can best reach their potential by using a fit perspective to design and implement new workplace practices. This involves properly assessing both employee and organizational needs and capabilities to choose appropriate workplace practices. Yet, both employees and organizations have to share similar expectations regarding the ultimate purpose of the practice, or else resistance may result.
In addition, organizations can strategically target practices (or a combination of practices) by directly involving employees in all phases of the workplace practice design and implementation process. This helps to produce the largest effect on desired outcomes and prevent underutilization or misuse of practices.
Regardless of the specific practices developed and implemented within an organization, continuously monitoring and refining existing programs can help the organization modify or eliminate ineffective practices and ensure that workplace programs and policies provide a sustainable benefit for employees and the organization.
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Edwards, J. R. (1996). An examination of competing version of the person-environment fit approach to stress. The Academy of Management Journal, 39, 292-339.
Edwards, J. R., & Cooper, C. L. (1990). The person-environment fit approach to stress: Recurring problems and some suggested solutions. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 10, 293- 307.
French, J. R. P., Jr., Caplan, R. D., & Harrison, R. V. (1982). The mechanisms of job stress and strain. New York: Wiley.
Kristoff, A. L. (1996). Person–organization fit: An integrative review of its conceptualizations, measurement, and implications. Personnel Psychology, 49, 1–49.
Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science. New York: Harper.
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Vroom, V. H. (1964). Work and motivation. New York: Wiley
Zucker, L. (1987). Normal change or risky business: Institutionalization effects on the ‘hazard’ of change in hospital organizations. Journal of Management Studies, 24, 671-700.
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