In October 2016 the Centre for Sustainable HRM and Wellbeing at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) will be welcoming Professor Wayne Hochwarter. Although, according to ACU, he is a “leading international authority on organisational behaviour research, his name was new to me. ACU advised that Professor Hochwarter has experience in the following areas:
- Employee entitlement
- Worker engagement
- Job stress
- Employee health and wellbeing
- Social influence
- Workplace politics
- Abuse work behaviours
- Leadership-focused motivation strategies
It is easy to see why I wanted to meet him. I was lucky enough to interview Professor Hochwarter recently while he is still in Florida. Our conversation is below.
SAWB: Do you think that your area of study will translate from the US to Australia with minimal adjustment?
WH: Of course there are always adjustments when you look at different contexts. I am confident, though, that the things that I study have important and practical implications/applications across and countries. Also, Australian values often are similar to those of workers in the United States. It is my intention to make statements that are as impactful as possible regardless of the country being study.
In sum, the adjustment will take some effort, but I look forward to outcome.
SAWB: How influential are cultural factors on workplace mental health?
WH: Culture can represent a lot of different things. It can reflect the level of participation at work, the shared organizational stories and symbols that employees agree upon, or simply the level of cumulative passion that employees have their jobs and company. Apple has a different culture than GM and Berkshire Hathaway. There are different cultures across departments here at Florida State University that vary widely.
In terms of national cultures, I would argue that there are certain risk factors that influence the amount of stress and anxiety that employees at work experience, make sense out of, and react (good and bad). It has been well documented that tension predicts a decline in mental health when perceived as excessive. Tension, in some manifestation, would seem to be the conduit to decreased mental health.
As an example, culture can adversely influence mental health when it causes unmet expectations to be particularly burdensome. Part of the American culture is to continue to push ahead with the hopes that your efforts will lead to more rewards and a better life for you and your family. Although these hopes have been met by many, significantly more have come to the conclusion that their goals and expectations will remain unrealized in the current economic environment.
In terms of a direct effect of culture on your mental health, native Americans suffer depression at a rate twice that of white Americans. Also, Russians report higher levels of depression than those in Australia and New Zealand.
To answer your initial question, cultural factors can certainly be influential on worker mental health. Because stress experiences and reactions are unique to each individual, the bigger questions are “why”, “when” and “how”.
SAWB: How significant is it that well being and health insurance is part of the employment contract in the US but not in Australia?
WH: In the United States, health insurance represents a necessary condition for employment in most cases. Frankly, most people really don’t spend much time thinking about their health insurance until it is needed. Metaphorically, health insurance is like men’s underwear. It’s important, allows one to go about the rest of the day with some level of protection, and makes people feel uncomfortable if absent. It’s a given for most workers – employees feel entitled to it.
I don’t think Americans typically consider health insurance and well-being as complementary components of work experience. Companies in the United States have made great strides in promoting wellness. Historically, it has not been a focal consideration and has only become topical when the costs of poor health and mental fitness were brought to leaders’ attention.
But we obviously have a long way to go. Our society is currently experiencing more stress and higher obesity levels than at any other time in history. Reasons for these realities are many
Although having health insurance may allow employees to worry less about costs associated with illness and injury, I don’t think it tangibly influences work on a day-to-day basis.
SAWB: Does this change the motivators for organisations in wellness? Do Australian companies need to provide a different evidence set for workplace wellness?
WH: My understanding of the Australian insurance/wellness system is minimal [but] in America, though, there are contrasting messages that are sent to employees. They are told to work late and weekends (either on-site or at home) to get projects done, and also told that they need to participate in some type of exercise program.
They are told that the more nutritious meals, but that are not able to go to the cafeteria to enjoy them due the fact that three people are now doing work done by five the past.
Wellness in many American organizations is something that is discussed but not fully embraced, supported, and rewarded. It is also one of the first things to go when belts need to be tightened. Truth be told, the American workforce is not considered too terribly healthy by most employers and physicians, and research bears this out. This is pretty sad.
SAWB: A lot of wellbeing/wellness programs work impose social factors on the workplace, often ignoring the workplace factors that create mental ill-health and stress. Do you differentiate between these two approaches or dispute the delineation?
WH: I completely agree. So my reward for having a crappy job is the opportunity to walk around the block and think about what a crappy job I have? Gee, thanks.
I am hopeful that I made some strides in this area by examining how workplace factors influence depressed mood at work. Getting a handle on depression, and other long-term metal disturbances is hard to get at via a survey and harder without MD after your name. Most people do research see mental health issues as an ingrained, genetic condition that is either there or it isn’t. I think everybody has mental health issues to some degree. People are insecure, people have lower levels of confidence than they should, people have learning issues that hinder their growth and development, and some people are simply more reactive to stressors or threats. Some people are just sad, and they don’t want to be.
If we are ever able to fully understand mental health issues, both in life and at work, we need to recognize and adopt a holistic approach. Typically, it’s not just “one thing”.
In my opinion, employee mental health will be one of the top three most critical issues facing organizations in the years to come. Unfortunately, I have little faith that companies are either prepared for, or capable of, making positive steps.
SAWB: Organisational structures and job design have been identified as major factors in workplace well being, yet the majority of research seems to focus on the individual’s coping skills and resilience. Should the OHS/HR focus be on organisational change or individual change for the most sustainable benefit?
WH: Most employees couldn’t describe their structure or job design. I can’t. Also, structure and design both tend to be distal to most employees. They really don’t care what was developed at the company headquarters 300 miles away. They can’t influence it (or contemplate it), so they hit the delete key.
When conducting research, therefore, academics tend to shoot for things that everyone experiences, and can offer opinions about, while at work. Most people can tell you how they cope with anxiety, whether they push ahead, or give in when things get rough. We can measure it, so we measure it.
Also, grant money is much more accessible if research is conducted at the individual level rather than macro perspectives.
I think it is irresponsible to adopt an either or mentality when addressing health and well-being at work. It is not always organizational factors that are the most harmful, just as it is not always the case that individual perspectives warrant the most attention. Just as organizations are different, so are the people working there. Looking at the waterfall from as many angles as possible will result in the most accurate depiction of its beauty and potency. The same can be said of social interactions at work – both positive and less desired. This is tough research to conduct.
The problem from an academic standpoint is that we go into organizations with a preconceived notion of what is going on with no idea of what realities exist. “My research looks at X…”. Maybe the company is X-less. This is a problem…physicians don’t remove gall bladders without a series of examinations beforehand. So we try to hammer a nail into a bucket of water. Good luck with that one.
SAWB: Do you believe that HR and OHS operate best as separate organisational streams? Can the two disciplines be blended? Which of these options do you think provides the best outcomes for both workers and companies?
WH: In principle, they are best understood as complementary and important components of an employee’s quality of work life. In practice, the company needs to do what is best for its employees. In the US, HR departments are drowning in work, restructurings, and layoffs/mergers – often facing these daunting tasks with a shell of the staff they used to have.
Thrusting an additional burden on them would be considered criminal by some. They just can’t do it, they just don’t want to do it, they just don’t care about it. They are thinking of one thing – Friday.
Again, assuming that they are best combined or separate in all instances is a narrow perspective. It’s not a matter of how it is conceptualized, the overarching focus should be centered exclusively on the development and maintenance of employee long-term health and well-being. What Tim needs is probably not what Tammy needs. Nonetheless, we throw a tarp over everyone and wonder why employees are less than grateful.
SAWB: A lot of research and change strategies in the areas of OHS and HR occur in large corporations. How important is it to research in the small-to medium-sized enterprise sector?
WH: Academics tend to focus on larger organizations for research settings for a variety of reason – the biggest one is “publish-ability”. I can’t get an article in a decent journal if I am assessing the coping habits of seven beauticians working in an upper-east side hair salon.
In reality, studying smaller sized organizations makes both academic and practical sense. Academically, I have a much better chance of understanding how those seven beauticians experienced stress and how they manage to make sense of their world and cope accordingly. What can I learn from 1100 computer salespeople fill out a four-page survey? Not much, really. Sometimes a richer understanding trumps a more “surface-y” one.
Practically speaking, more people work in small and midsize companies and in larger ones. So, you are talking about a huge chunk of working people who often have unique opportunities and challenges as a result of the size of their employer.
I wrote something that ended up in the Wall Street Journal a few years back that talked about bullying at work. Basically, what I found is that employees in larger companies could hide from the bowling whereas those in smaller companies could not. This may not sound like much, but it really is a big deal you are the one being bullied.
I try to take advantage of every chance I get to visit or conduct research in small and midsize companies. They are also easier to work with and they really are interested in what is found and how it can impact real change.
In these companies, real change can actually take place. Apple? General Motors? Not likely and certainly not as expediently as in smaller firms.
SAWB: Although Australian trade unions represent only 19% of Australia workplaces, this rate is higher than in the US. How important is the cooperation of the trade union movement to improving workplace health and safety?
WH: In the United States, very few employees equate representation and health and safety. Relative to what was going on years ago, people simply do not consider their jobs to be physically hazardous. I have several family members in the olden days that lost fingers and limbs at work (mostly working in printing presses in Chicago). Our blue-collar level of employment is much less now that even 20 years. As a result, unions have begun to emphasize other potential hazards like stress, treatment at work, and protecting off-work time for employees.
For example, unions are emphasizing paternity leave, which would have been scoffed at in the past.
Overall, unions can have a distinct role on health and well-being. However, it is not in the ways emphasized in the past. It is through quality of life issues, the assurance of equitable, fair, and humane treatment, and maintaining job status in increasingly volatile and unpredictable work settings.
SAWB: In one of your research papers (“Examining the interactive effects of accountability, politics, and voice”) you talk about voice behaviour. How can proactive voice behaviour contribute to, or strengthen, organisational culture? (OHS is very excited about the importance of safety culture at the moment).
WH: I define organization culture simply as the “agreed upon ways of best doing things around here so everyone can flourish”.
NASA is a great company; I give talks there every year. I love the people there and they are beyond good to me. It wasn’t great about 30 years ago when the space shuttle blew up over the skies of Florida. Why? Someone knew the O-rings were faulty but failed to step up.
On the surface, a culture of openness and unfettered participation sounds lovely. This is lip service in many companies despite the recognized benefits. Most upper-level employers don’t want the rank and file to have so much influence on things, and having say in what goes on (even if it only to voice ideas) is considered influence. The “do what we tell you to do when we tell you to do it” mentality still dominates.
Employees, fearful of losing their jobs with little hope of finding one that is suitable, decide that silence is better than a soup line.
The companies moving forward are the ones that let the most influential do the most influencing with little pride, envy or fear of looking inept. Universities are bad about this.
SAWB: How important is it to communicate your research findings outside of academia?
WH: Any professor worth his/her salt must readily admit that he/she has an ego larger than the Great Victoria Desert – and mine is bigger than the Sahara. Sahara plus the Gobi for that matter. Actually, I just want to see how many people misspell my name…
All kidding aside (and I’m kidding), I don’t know why anyone would hoard something that may have some impact on someone or something. Truth be told, I have made leadership and organizational development consultants lots of money over the years. They take my studies on the road and convince others that they can fix the foibles that have been reported in my research.
I have heard from hundreds, maybe thousands, of people, who have been generous with their praise for the issues that I have been fortunate enough to bring forward. Many have gone to his/her boss with the research with an accompanying “I told you so” message. Often, something positive has resulted, even if it is to initiate a conversation
A long time ago, I decided to quit reading other people’s knowledge and generate my own. It has been a lot more fun, a lot less boring, and a great opportunity to meet some incredible people. I’ve looked at bad bosses, parent guilt, hurricane stress, politics, the seven deadly sins, supervisor narcissism, layoff, how people think about threat at work, and proactive approaches to coping. Yes, the world has become my laboratory.
I pride myself on examining only the issues that influence the daily lives of ALL workers.
Finally, I’m in the teaching business. Generating knowledge for those outside the classroom is equally important to me. Poets let others read their efforts. Physicians hope to change health by sharing their findings. Literature professors publish their works. Why shouldn’t I? I’ve never worried about people stealing my ideas. I find it flattering.
SAWB: Some organisations in the US require all research to also produce a “Research-To-Practice” document in Plain English so that research can be easily understood and applied by the layperson. Are you supportive of this requirement?
WH: Certainly when applicable. There are times when the findings of research should be shielded from society/lay persons, as is the case with defense-related studies. There are other examples when findings disseminated to society could have potential safety and health implications. If research has shown that one in a million patients with a rare disease respond favorably to a certain drug, a mother with a child suffering from said ailment may do whatever is necessary to get the drug. These are obviously rare cases that do not capture most of the research.
I get numerous publications that describe the research accomplishments of others across my university and others. Most of the time, I don’t get past the first paragraph – I don’t understand it and it has no bearing on me.
We should not be flippant about the way we craft our discussions either. Credibility may be jeopardized and harm potentially evoked if great care is not taken when explanations are provided.
My advice…simple is okay!
I think that an ability to explain what you are doing as a professor to your grandma, for example, will make you a better scholar in the long-run.
Professor Hochwarter seemed an intriguing person and more so when I asked him what he was most looking forward to by living in Australia for a while.
WH: The smell of the wind.
The shape of the buildings.
The smile of the locals at the coffee shop.
The thoughtfulness of a stranger who will give me directions to a museum.
Meeting the undergraduate students.
Meeting the graduate students.
Meeting the doctoral students.
Helping the undergraduate students.
Helping the graduate students.
Helping the doctoral students.
Someone telling me that my research is a pile of crap.
Someone telling me that my research isn’t a pile of crap.
Learning, learning, learning.