I spoke to Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance—and What We Can Do About It, about why he wrote the book, the employee burnout crisis, the importance of corporate wellness programs, what we can learn from other countries about creating a better work environment, and how to prevent ‘work creep’.
Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He has authored or coauthored fourteen books and is a highly sought-after expert on the subject of power and leadership. He is widely considered one of the leading management experts in the world. Pfeffer has been a visiting professor at London Business School, Harvard Business School, Singapore Management University, and IESE. He has served on the boards of several human capital software companies as well as on a variety of public and nonprofit boards.
Dan Schawbel: Why did you decide to investigate the impact of management on employee health and company performance? Did anything surprise you while research for the book?
Jeffrey Pfeffer: As a member of Stanford’s committee on faculty and staff human resources, and after sitting on Hewitt’s Human Capital Leadership Council with CHRO’s of some of the largest companies, I was struck by the almost obsessive focus on health care costs on the part of these largely self-insured organizations. But in this focus on health care costs, the emphasis was mostly on prices for various services and drugs and plan design to induce more cost-conscious individual decision making. To the extent there was a focus on prevention rather than remediation of health care costs, it was on individual behaviors such as exercise, diet, and smoking. It struck me that employers were possibly missing the profound effects of work environments on both individual health-relevant behaviors and morbidity and mortality outcomes and costs.
As I dove into the subject and began looking at the extensive epidemiological research literature, I also noticed that many of the things that drove unhealthy behaviors and caused ill health—job environment dimensions such as long work hours, an absence of job control, and work-family conflict—were also workplace practices that did not really benefit employers, holding aside their effects on health and health care costs.
In short, it seemed to me that much about contemporary work environments was creating a lose-lose situation in which employers were doing things that benefited no one—not them nor the people whose psychological and physical well-being depended in important ways on what happened to those people at work. Consequently, it seemed to me we needed to shine a light on this problem and spark a social movement, or maybe several such movements, to make employee well-being a more central focus of employer’s actions. Hence, Dying for a Paycheck.
Schawbel: Our research shows that employees are working harder than ever before, with no additional pay, and it’s caused a burnout crisis. How does your research reflect this and what can employers do to solve it?
Pfeffer: Your research is completely correct. Particularly in the U.S., where work hours have increased to the point where country is now ranked near the top on 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—there is extensive research demonstrating the truth of something that common sense suggests should be true: that as work hours increase, labor productivity decreases. I summarize some of this research in the chapter on work hours in Dying for a Paycheck. Thus, working people more—burning them out, in your terms—does not increase productivity or, in many cases, even total output. Employers should reduce work hours and work pressures—which, in the end, make people sick and increase turnover. And the evidence is overwhelming that, no surprise, sick people are less productive.
Schawbel: The stressed out workforce has given rise to the wellbeing/wellness industry and corporate sponsored programs. What is your take on this trend and the effectiveness of those programs?
Pfeffer: Corporate wellness programs and the wellbeing industry are extensive, and costly. But the evidence on the effectiveness of such interventions is mixed, at best. And that’s because these interventions are, in my view, focused on the wrong things. We know, from extensive research summarized in Dying for a Paycheck, that individual behaviors such as overeating, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and drug abuse are related to the stress, including workplace induced stress, that individuals experience. So instead of trying to get people to engage in healthier individual behaviors, workplace wellbeing initiatives would be more effective if they focused on preventing the stress-inducing aspects of work environments that cause the unhealthy individual behaviors in the first place.
Simply put, companies need to build cultures of health—and that begins by creating work environments that help people thrive both physically and psychologically. Not on trying to remediate the harm that toxic workplaces inflict through limited-intervention “programs.”
Schawbel: Some countries have 5 weeks mandatory vacation (Finland, France, etc.) or free healthcare (Canada) while American is rated second to worst for worker protections. What can we learn from other countries about creating a health work environment?
Pfeffer: In the U.S., approximately 50,000 people a year are dying from not being able to access health care because they do not have health insurance. I find that fact to be morally reprehensible. In the U.S., about a quarter of all employees have no paid time off—neither sick days nor paid vacations. People are going to work sick, thereby making others, such as fellow employees and customers, sick by exposing them to things such colds and flu. That seems unconscionable. The U.S. stands out among advanced industrialized countries in its absence of employee protections. Two colleagues and I estimated that about one-half of the 120,000 excess deaths from workplace exposures annually was preventable. I find that toll appalling. The U.S., which claims to be “pro-life,” ought to worry about human life not just at its very beginnings and end, but throughout people’s lives, including their lives at work.
Schawbel: Technology has expanded the workday to 24/7 since we are always connected. What can be done to limit work off the grid?
Pfeffer: The idea that because one can be connected all the time one should be needs to be changed. Simply put, this is a matter of organizational culture and expectations. When Dean Carter, the head of HR for Patagonia, the clothing company, worked for Sears, he received an e-mail about work late afternoon on Christmas eve. When he replied the next morning, the response he got was, “what took you so long?” If someone did that at Patagonia, they would no longer work there. The expectation there, and at other companies that care about their employees’ well-being and work-life balance, is that, unless in cases of exceptional emergency, people should be “off the grid” when they stop their work day—and that downtime should be respected. France, of course, has instituted a regulation limiting employers’ use of off-hours e-mails to their employees. This is something that any employer can—and should—do. People do better work when they have time to relax, sleep, and refresh. Burning people out just drives them away and produces worse work output in any event.