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Psychologically Unhealthy Management Should Be a Human Rights Violation

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Five years ago, then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed Harvard professor John G. Ruggie to be Special Representative on business & human rights. This new mission was charged with investigating human rights abuses by transnational corporations and other business enterprises. Since then, it's focused on such areas as discrimination, pesticide poisoning, child labor, drinking water contamination, sexual abuse, and the displacement of indigenous peoples.

But I think another, largely overlooked category of corporate behavior deserves inclusion as a human rights violation: Management practices that damage the mental health of a company's own employees.

 Unhealthy management and leadership harms employees and, therefore, their work performance. Most everyone is familiar with the damaging effects of abusive, hostile, arrogant and narcissistic bosses; of manipulative or deceitful leadership behavior, often directed by senior management towards each other; workaholic demands that result in burnout and diminished productivity; intimidation and threats, subtle and overt; public denigration and humiliation; destructive political maneuvering and closet discrimination. The list goes on.

Typical consequences for individuals include depression, rage, severe stress or anxiety, withdrawal, paranoia and, increasingly, lawsuits.

As a consultant to business leadership and a psychotherapist for 30 years, I've helped people at both end of the spectrum -- from the mailroom to the corporate suite -- deal with the consequences. Moreover, I've seen an increase of such practices since the economic meltdown began in September 2008.

Unhealthy leadership and the culture it spawns typically disseminates downward to drain away high-performing, energized, engaged employee behavior, including the innovative teamwork companies need to stay nimble and competitive -- especially today.

Moreover, an unhealthy management culture fuels emotional conflicts among employees who weren't overtly troubled prior to working in that environment. Or, it exacerbates prior emotional conflicts that were previously dormant or well-managed. I documented these several years ago in Modern Madness. But defining unhealthy management as a human rights violation would underscore the principle that men and women should have the right to both a physically and psychologically healthy workplace. It will spur more companies to recognize the link between successful business and a healthy workplace culture.

Some might argue that such practices are less severe than, say, exploitative child labor or unsanitary, environmentally toxic working environments. Or, that you can leave a job if you don't like how you're being treated (try that in this economy). But similar arguments were also put forth about racial and gender discrimination by companies, and we've expanded our view of workplace human rights to include protection from those.

I think the primary obstacle to thinking of unhealthy management as a human rights violation is something different. It's rooted in a socially conditioned perspective about the link between work and mental health. That is, companies that do acknowledge a link at all between emotional disturbance and the workplace tend to think of troubles that people bring with them to the office. For example, depression, alcohol and drug problems, severe anxiety, uncontrollable anger, and acute family crises. Of course, many people experience conflicts like these for reasons largely unrelated to the workplace, and they do impact job performance and workplace relationships.

But these are in the category of how the person impacts the workplace. I find that the more pervasive and insidious conflicts are those resulting from how the workplace impacts the person.

Why Companies Should Pay Attention

Data about the latter has been growing. Over 10 years ago the World Health Organization elevated the status of "workplace stress" (a broad term including the impact of unhealthy management) to that of a "worldwide epidemic." Today, the impact of an unhealthy workplace environment on the employee is estimated to cost American companies $300 billion a year in poor performance, absenteeism and health costs.

Similarly, a report by the International Labor Organization back in 2000 found that work-related emotional conflicts were already costing the U.S. about 200 million lost workdays each year. Such conflicts are also one of the most common health problems in EU countries. A European survey found that 28% of workers reported emotional conflicts caused by work. Similar data have been reported by Canadian businesses. And in Japan, a survey found the percentage shot up from 53% in 1982 to 63% in 1997. All of these numbers are likely to have grown in the years since they surveys were conducted.

And, they may be just the tip of the iceberg. Workers often cite the physical symptoms, such as headaches, chronic pain or digestive disorders as their reason for taking leave, when untreated mental health problems are the underlying cause. In fact, research shows that emotional conflict can weaken the immune system and make people more vulnerable to a host of illnesses.

So companies have a clear stake in defining emotionally harmful management practices as a human rights issue. By not taking steps to create more positive, healthier environments they undermine the performance and commitment of workers through the lost workdays, diminished productivity and less innovation. That generates higher costs to the organization, not to mention hurt the company's reputation -- including its ability to attract and retain high-quality talent and, eventually, it's success in the global marketplace.

Some companies have been addressing these problems. But mostly, it's after they arise, and as an "add-on," not as a necessity or practice reflecting the human rights of employees. Examples include wellness programs, employee assistance programs, and classes for dieting and stress-management. These are helpful. But they fall short of what companies could do at the front end: reducing the emotionally harmful organizational cultures and management practices that hurt employees and the business in the first place.

Some movement in this direction has recently begun, but it's mainly pushed by the threat of new laws. Eleven states have introduced legislation prohibiting workplace abuse by management. Model legislation, developed by Suffolk University Law School professor David Yamada, defines the scope and features of the more visible end of the spectrum - abusive, bullying, demeaning behavior.

Some executives will respond only after getting a wake-up call. Then, they realize that their companies are losing their competitive edge or market share and part of the reason is that they're increasingly perceived as undesirable place to work. Reactive behavior is better than none at all, but companies would be wise to become more proactive, and deal with this problem at the front end.

The fact is, a positive, healthy management culture will help the company stay competitive and retain the best employees. That kind of environment supports the innovation, cutting-edge thinking, and the psychological and cultural competencies needed for success in this fluid, globalized economy.

In Synch With Today's Employees

Leaders who do become proactive are more in synch with surveys and research showing that men and women across generations -- from 20-somethings to baby boomers -- will commit themselves to organizations that practice positive, healthy management -- such as collaboration, teamwork, a clear reward and recognition system, and transparency at all levels. They want companies led by open-mined but confident people who embrace the often-unsettling tension that accompanies new terrain and new challenges. In fact, the successful executives use that tension to energize and lead, as Robert Rosen has written in Just Enough Anxiety, based on studies of 250 CEOs and other senior executives.

Similarly, a survey of 8000 workers across all age groups and occupations by Concours Group found that the most productive, energized workers gravitate towards companies that provide opportunities for ongoing learning, growth and creative challenge. They want their work to have a positive impact on something more meaningful than just the narrower rewards of money, position, or power. They also want the service or product they work on to have a positive impact on people's lives.

A 2007 survey by MonsterTRAK found that 80% of those surveyed said they want a job that has a positive impact on the environment. 92% said they would choose working for a "green" company. Other research shows employees working at companies with corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs are the most satisfied. They stay at their jobs longer and are more content with senior management then their peers at companies with lackluster CSR programs, according to a survey conducted by Kenexa Research Institute.

And among those entering the corporate pipeline, a 2007 Hill & Knowlton survey found that three-quarters of top MBA students say corporate reputation will play a critical role in deciding where to work. They cite quality of management and social responsibility among the key drivers of where they look. While the current economic and career climate creates some fears and uncertainties about the choices one is facing, the direction of this overall thrust is nevertheless clear.

Defining unhealthy management practices as human rights violations would raise the bar for corporations regarding their management conduct. It would encourage them to build the kinds of companies that people will continue to gravitate towards -- ones committed to practicing respect, fair treatment, openness, and collaboration; along with support for continuous learning and growth of skills, knowledge and talent.

In fact, companies who make it through the current economic recession in the best shape and best positioned for success will be those whose leaders believe in and support an energized work force, high quality of goods or services, ethical conduct, and socially responsible and environmentally sustainable practices. And, that all of those rest upon the foundation of the management culture. A healthy one is both good...and good for business.