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How does the culture of prevention succeed?

Today, VUCA shapes the modern working world: it is subject to volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, that is what we today call digital transformation and the associated disruption. In times of VUCA, what does that mean for the health of workers and the competitiveness of the company?  This central question goes to Prof. Dr. med. Joachim E. Fischer in an interview with tr-academy.com. The Director of the Mannheim Institute for Public Health at the Medical Faculty Mannheim of the University of Heidelberg sees in the “FreuSinn” – joy at work – a central factor for a healthy and motivating Leadership 4.0. In his opinion, the thesis that prevention is better than cure – is more relevant than ever.

In your opinion, how can one reconcile protecting employee health and the competitiveness of a company?

Traditionally, the culture of prevention has been meant: We protected employee health with technical measures designed to reduce exposure to risk. We have achieved an exemplary high standard in this regard. Today, digitalization has taken over the workplace and has increased the amount of knowledge work employees do. The demand for flexible, individualized solutions is increasing, especially in industrial settings. This is changing the kinds of health protection we need to provide. Averting physical risks is taking a back seat and it’s becoming more important to strengthen employees’ ability to cope with challenges. Adding to the complexity is an increasing unpredictability and uncertainty, often even contradictions, which are not exactly diminished by current political upheavals, whether it’s Brexit or American tariffs.

But people need sufficient security in order to tap their potential. The culture of prevention in the sense of using conventional health campaigns such as veggie day in the staff cafeteria, health awareness days, or healthy back training is far too short-sighted. By taking the opportunity to find out what will help employees develop their potential and thus increase the company’s competitiveness is often good for their overall mental health. The aim here is to find the best possible intersections: this is at the heart of the new “culture of prevention.”

You see having a sense of joy (“FreuSinn”) as a central factor of the culture of prevention in the sense of a healthy and motivating Leadership 4.0. What exactly do you mean by this?

Originally, it was out of pure scientific curiosity that we asked more than 20,000 people whether they look forward to going to work in the morning when they wake up and whether their work helps them see their lives as meaningful. We were quite surprised when those employees who could fully agree with both statements were healthier, even down to biological markers, and described themselves as more effective. We decided to name this phenomenon “FreuSinn.” Obviously it is joy, not fun, and experiencing the job as meaningful is vital to these people. It is close to what others have described as “flow.” And we know from neurobiological research that the frontal lobe of the brain is particularly active when these conditions are active. It is in the frontal lobe where we think, decide, invent, judge, plan. In other words, exactly those things today’s knowledge-based economy and society need.

If a company’s ability to create value increasingly depends on employees’ using the frontal lobes of their brains and not shutting that aspect of their humanity down when they cross the entrance gates, then it is up to managers at all levels of the hierarchy to create the conditions for more joy and meaningfulness at work. This does not necessarily make the management task any easier, because there are no simple formulas to follow. Sometimes it might involve simplifying disruptive processes. It might be allowing certain people to work from home or it might involve firing people that are disrupting the team with their poisonous attitudes. An important task in this regard is to cushion the ubiquitous uncertainty credibly, whether it is uncertainty caused by fixed-term contracts (like we have in research) or the uncertainty caused by turbulent markets. And because many people react more irritably under stress and with increasing exhaustion, taking care of the workplace atmosphere day in, day out becomes all the more important.

We recently evaluated data from a representative study conducted by the German Labor Ministry, which included both an internationally used scale for mental well-being and a scale for measuring enthusiasm, commitment, and passion for work. The results showed that 40% of employees are both committed and engaged in their work and also mentally healthy. So a job that keeps you healthy has long been a real possibility. Empirical data from several studies even agree that people who voluntarily work longer and feel useful have longer lives. Managers must therefore ask themselves how they can increase the sense of joy and meaningfulness at work both today and in the future tomorrow from their own strength without extensive training. Whether it’s city cleaning, nursing care for the elderly, working the assembly line, or in an architecture firm. We know companies in every industry that can do this. They have low absenteeism rates, and they generate great added value with their work. Almost nothing has a more lasting effect than genuine sincere recognition for good performance. And not in the form of a bonus payment at the end of the year, but with a grateful handshake immediately.

We have collected our own data to compare the effects of convention health campaigns with that of creating a sense of joy and meaningfulness at work. While 10% healthier behaviors only contribute 1% to employee health and just over half a percent to productivity, 10% more joy and a sense of meaning bring about 5% more productivity. It’s no wonder why SAP’s Business Health Culture Index, where half the questions measure the quality of leadership and support, has become a significant internal key performance indicator for SAP. PWC calculated on SAP’s behalf that a 1% improvement in the Business Health Culture Index translates into €65-75 million more profit. This is no secret; it has been published online in SAP’s annual report. Anyone who thinks conventional health campaigns will be enough will, in the long run, not be able to exploit the full potential of holistic health management.

What opportunities do you see in bargaining agreements that can’t be solved by the healthcare system?

The healthcare system is excellent when it comes to treating acute illnesses with clear medical causes and treatment options. However, the healthcare system is not at all equipped to maintain employees’ ability to work and create value. If, for example, employees are so mentally restricted that, although they still function day-to-day and aren’t in need to psychiatric hospitalization, they will no longer be able to work in a way that creates value. We have to define a new culture of prevention. Our healthcare system only offers waiting times and no solutions. So there is a gap between conventional, technical health protection measures and the healthcare system which is yearning for healthcare that includes psycho social aspects. This applies to a wide range of potential offerings aimed at the individual, such as family assistance in problem situations such as caring for relatives, early intervention in cases of pain or psychological complaints, and meaningful attempts at making working hours or locations more flexible.

But this affects especially how we design work, that is, the conditions under which people work. Whereas the focus was once on emissions, noise, dangers, and lighting, it’s the psycho social impact and mental noise that we now need to get under control. What gets forgotten in all these risk assessments is that the mind also benefits from resources that will help it to overcome challenges. So it’s not just a question of reducing burdens and averting dangers. Unlike the technical prevention of risks, the most important thing for the mind is that which strengthens it. You can’t avert the cancer risk from asbestos through your mood. But you can solve a big task together as a team and what remain are the sense of achievement and the certainty and confidence of being able to solve the next problem together again, too.

When I was a child, Esso gas stations used to advertise with the “tiger in the tank.” The “tiger in the tank” for value creation is increasing the experience of joy and meaningfulness at work. The cover story of the current issue of Harvard Business Review is: “When work has meaning: how to turn purpose into performance.”

Professor Fischer, thank you for speaking with us.

Christina Strotmann