Launching a healthy organization

Toxic work environments take heavy toll on employers

Healthy organizations: Workplace consultant Graham Lowe and Mary Quinn, a learning and organizational effectiveness consultant at Trillium Health Centre, spoke about how healthy organizations take a holistic, integrated and long-term perspective at a recent Strategic Capability Network event.

Launching a healthy organization

By Angela Scappatura

The best business results are achieved through a healthy organization that is co-created, says workplace consultant Graham Lowe.

“It can’t be something that comes from the top,” says Lowe, who is also the author of Creating Healthy Organizations (published by Carswell, a Thomson Reuters business). “That, right away, is a healthy process… involving people right from the front lines and actually defining what they want their workplace and the organization to look and feel like.”

Lowe recently spoke at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto.

His description of a healthy organization is meant as a metaphor and draws links between people and performance, he says.

“There are many metaphors used to talk about organizations… but rarely do you see health metaphors,” he says. “If we use the concept of health and apply that to an organization and really use that as a lens for looking at the organization, we get a much more detailed, much more holistic, integrated view of the organization.”

Terms describing healthy people — fit, agile, resilient, thriving — are the same used to define a healthy organization, he says. They help illuminate the links among organizational performance, employee well-being and social responsibility, says Lowe.

“Once the links are visible, then you can strengthen them,” he says. “Then you can move toward the idea.”

Space shuttle Columbia

Lowe cited the destruction of NASA’s space shuttle Columbia as an example of how a negative organizational culture can have disastrous consequences.

Columbia was destroyed on Feb. 1, 2003, while re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. One of Columbia’s wings was punctured after it was hit by a piece of insulating foam that had peeled off from the external fuel tank during launch.

While that was determined to be the physical cause of the accident, the investigation revealed organizational culture played an equal role.

“It wasn’t tiles coming off the spacecraft but, rather, it was the culture that led to those errors being made initially,” says Lowe.

Toxic work environments can be the downfall of a company, he says.

4 building blocks

Lowe outlined four building blocks of a healthy organization: positive culture, inclusive leadership, a vibrant workplace and inspired employees.

Each of these segments serves an important role in developing a solid foundation, he says.

To illustrate how a healthy organization can be achieved co-operatively, Lowe spoke about the work at Trillium Health Centre in Toronto.

It provides a broad spectrum of health services, says Mary Quinn, a learning and organizational effectiveness consultant at the centre, which has about 4,400 employees. “We do everything but transplants.”

In an effort to move toward a healthier organizational path, the centre decided to tackle all four building blocks at once, says Quinn.

To implement the program, Trillium used metrics to identify the “informal leaders” across the organization, she says. That process led them to coin the term “1,001 leaders.”

“There is power in one and power in one thousand,” she says, referring to the idea that the success of a healthy organization depends on everyone contributing.

“At the end of the day, informal leaders are change agents.”

In the end, the process changed the way Trillium departments operate and the services they provide.

“We don’t have an occupational health and safety department, we have an employee health and wellness department,” says Quinn.

As a result of its efforts, Trillium has consistently ranked high in employee satisfaction, she says.

One of the points to remember when embarking on a healthy organizational path is the importance of co-operation, says Lowe.

But keeping everyone involved and engaged in the process is also one of the biggest challenges.

“This is not a program, this is not a plan,” says Lowe. “It isn’t something you can sketch out as a piece of project management and go out and do it. It has to be very organic and embedded.”

It also has to be a shared vision, he says.

While that’s happening, an organization can leverage wellness.

“I’ve seen major needs and challenges in organizations that simply aren’t being met. One of them is the need to get beyond the limits of workplace health promotion and employee wellness programs,” he says. “There’s been huge investments in these programs but they’ve really hit the wall in terms of being able to contribute to business results.”

Employee stress is an example of this, says Lowe. It’s a leading concern for companies, so when a company is looking for effective solutions, it should move beyond preventive efforts to the features of an organization that contribute to a person’s overall well-being, he says. “If you use a wide lens, you will identify systemic solutions.”

Another example is absenteeism, he says. One particular organization, after examining its absentee rates, realized the majority of those absent weren’t sick. But, because of some organizational policies, people who needed to leave for a one-hour appointment were forced to take a full day off.

That revelation led to a new approach to absenteeism and the company created “care days,” says Lowe.

The payoff for performance is very clear, he says. While there is evidence to support the positive effects, companies shouldn’t wait to see them before embarking on a healthy organizational path.

Instead, they should track their progress as they go, says Lowe.

“That way, they’re building their own business case.”

Angela Scappatura is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

Tips for employers

4 building blocks of healthy organizations

There are four cornerstones of a healthy organization, according to Graham Lowe:

Positive culture: Managers and executives should look closely at the values of the organization and ask how they can pull those values to centre stage and really live them.

Leadership: The approach to leadership required to build a truly sustainable organization is one where each employee is encouraged to take initiative and be a leader within her own sphere.

Vibrant workplace: This captures all the ingredients of the kind of workplace everyone dreams about going to every day. It’s looking at how jobs are designed, how relationships in the workplace are supported and the kinds of resources employees have to do their jobs.

Inspired employees: This is a building block but it is also an outcome of the three other building blocks. When this happens, you have employees who are beyond engaged.

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SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies.

The organization is a body – keep it healthy (Leadership in action)

By Dave Crisp

An interesting and powerful way to look at healthy workplaces is to draw a parallel between organizations and healthy individuals.

It isn’t a single program (such as jogging for weight loss) that will solve our problems and turn us into paragons of good health but, rather, a series of activities working together. While this isn’t a brand new point, it’s still a potentially useful way of presenting this concept to line managers who have limited time or interest in HR programs.

What does it take for an individual to be healthy? A variety of elements — healthy eating, sleeping, exercising, work-life balance and a purpose in life with supportive people. These complementary approaches have to work consistently together. Add in one major discordant element — drinking to excess or short-changing sleep for months on end — and trouble is brewing.

The same can be said for organizations. You need a goal the whole body (the organization is a body, in much the same way as an individual) can get behind and accept as purposeful. A healthy body requires a supportive environment that challenges everyone to be better in a balanced, measured way. Those healthy ingredients can be disrupted by bad behaviour.

Astonishingly, more than 70 cent of organization have problems with executives who play favourites, curse or otherwise create unpleasant environments and refuse to follow reasonable process, according to a survey of 793 HR professionals by Canadian HR Reporter and the Human Resources Professionals Association.

Persistent bad habits will not only destroy the health of individuals but organizations — not overnight, but cumulatively over relatively short time frames. Seen in this light, it’s perhaps easier to understand lots of programs contribute to overall health and ignoring any of them has the potential to sink the whole body.

Of course, none of us, nor any organization, will be perfect. But we have to strive continually to improve if we expect to function at high levels and produce great results with high productivity.

Can we tolerate some bad habits? Sure. But imagine the result if the majority of cells in the body are contributing to the problem with bad behaviour. Most of the body had better be in good shape and functioning well if we expect to survive our relatively few bad habits.

Trillium Health Centre’s examples rang especially true. It engages many leaders (not just formal ones) in coming up with continual improvements, similar to Toyota — and Trillium referenced using lean, a Toyota-originated concept applied to HR and the organization’s wellness, management and business practices.

Will good health give us the energy to work better and produce superior results? Of course. Then why does it seem so hard to get this point across in organizations? The more tightly we can link this with clear measures of how it works synergistically with all management efforts in one bucket, the more we will get the right results.

Dave Crisp is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on leadership in action. He shows clients how to improve results with better HR management and leadership. He has a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co., where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit

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Keeping an employer in shape (Strategic capability)

By Karen Gorsline

Health promotion terms such as fit, agile, resilient and thriving are being used with respect to organizations and not just individuals. Here’s how:

Habits: Individuals have habits that drive daily behaviour; organizations have cultures. Individuals who are fit and agile have habits that support development of these qualities; organizations with people practices and workplace culture can equally promote a vigorous workforce.

Aging and becoming stale: Similar to individuals, an organization’s workforce can age and become comfortable with routines. But a workforce can be renewed and reinvented. Workforce planning focused on workforce composition and renewal can influence fitness and agility at the strategic level.

People alone: A fit workforce does not guarantee a robust organization. An organization needs to ensure key areas, such as product development, financing and operations, support its overall health. While good people management practices, culture and leadership are critical, an organization must rely on strategies in a number of business areas to support success and sustainability. How well can an organization perform if it has a great workforce but poor financing? Additionally, there can be situations where the market is under such intense pressure that even the most resilient company may not be sustainable. HR practitioners need to understand overall business success and sustainability extend beyond people management to other areas.

Lapse and ‘fall off the wagon’: Individuals use their fitness and agility reserves to get them through lapses in busy or tough times. Organizations can experience similar lapses during a change in leadership, an extended period of rapid decision-making or a significant transformation. The challenge is to find a balance that maintains behaviours that have built up their fitness while drawing upon agility and resilience. Because organizations have a broader range of resources to draw upon, they should be in a better position to manage the balancing act.

Social context: Individuals operate as social beings. Organizations also operate in a social and political world. For both, relationships can help or hinder achieving goals or meeting needs. In the past, organizations have normally thought of their reputation and brand in a fairly narrow context — how it influenced a consumer’s decision to purchase a product or service.

More recently, organizations have taken a more personal stance through corporate social responsibility (CSR). Its counterpart in the individual is: “What kind of person am I?” CSR extends beyond influencing a simple purchasing decision to establishing relationships beyond product attributes. It influences current and potential employees, consumers, political decision-makers, external communities and advocacy groups. The relationship becomes personal.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. She has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at

Organizational effectiveness is one of Strategic Capability Network’s key themes because it’s essential to the achievement of all goals, including financial results. Finding outstanding individuals is critical but, unless the great majority of team members, teams, departments and divisions function well together, there can never be enough star players to make up for the shortfall in co-operative effort.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Trillium Health Centre’s practical application of Graham Lowe’s strategies for healthy organizations requires continuously involving as many individuals as possible in improving not only outcomes but environmental factors within their operations to support engagement and widespread co-operation. Engaging “1,001 leaders” — including many informal ones — out of several thousand employees makes perfect sense.

So why don’t more organizations emphasize this? It clearly isn’t an automatic or easy process but one that needs to be promoted and consistently worked at by all managers. Trillium’s revelations of the process gave life to the theory.

The fact many managers are interchangeable and in agreement ensures sustainability beyond the tenure of single individuals. But Trillium went further.

In recruiting a new CEO, the board said the successor must continue to develop and evolve the program. Somewhat more surprising is this has actually occurred, introducing a level of sustainability not many organizations are achieving. To ensure continual input, there are broad-based councils that provide valued feedback.

For an organization to be truly as effective as it can be, activities that engage every level are required. Not many organizations stick to this approach, despite attempting to do so for nearly a decade.

Imagine how much more effective organizations could be following this approach and, consequently, how much more effective society could be. If a critical objective is for organizations to be effective, the people in them have to work well together. It’s a basic concept but it isn’t happening.

Tracy Cocivera is a commentator on organizational effectiveness for SCNetwork and a senior consultant in leadership solutions at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions. As a business psychologist, she helps executives and teams enhance their effectiveness and create more value for their organizations. She can be reached at

Next executive series

Would you like to attend one of the upcoming Strategic Capability Network events? Here’s a look at the next sessions:

April: Half-day symposium on women in leadership, with Alison Konrad (Ivey), Marjoy Kerr (DDI) and Elizabeth Dalzell (CBC). (April 11; Toronto.)

May: Winners of the Focus 2040 student competition will present their predictions and hypotheses. (May 11; Toronto.)

Visit for more information.

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