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Human Resource Development International, Vol. 9, No.

4, 563 571, December 2006

Perspective on Practice

Expanding the HRD Role: Improving Employee Well-Being and Organizational Performance
Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne

ABSTRACT An important opportunity for the HRD profession lies in assessing and reshaping the psychosocial work environment to create a healthy, mentally focused workforce that provides their organization with a competitive advantage. We explain why HRD professionals should be concerned with employee well-being, oer suggestions for assessing the work environment through a stress audit and discuss four key work factors that aect well-being: job control, role overload, social support and supervisor behaviour. By expanding their role to these concerns, HRD professionals can improve quality of life and contribute to organizational eectiveness. If they do, the result should be healthier employees, healthier organizations and a greater recognition of HRDs potential for transforming organizations. KEY WORDS: Stress audits, human resource development, workplace psychosocial factors, employee health, consultants

A key to organizational success is eectively managing resources human and nancial. A means by which HRD practitioners can contribute to that objective is to create a healthier workforce by assessing and improving the psychosocial work environment. In this article we explain why HRD professionals should be concerned with employee well-being, oer suggestions for assessing the work environment using stress audits and discuss four key work factors that aect well-being. Workforce Demands, Stressors and Strains The global marketplace demands high-quality products and services and gives the advantage to lower-cost producers (van Opstal, 1999). Responding to the competitive pressures of the global marketplace places stress on organizations
Correspondence Address: Brad Gilbreath and Max Montesino, Division of Organizational Leadership and Supervision, 288 Ne Hall, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, 2101 E. Coliseum Blvd, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 46805-1499, USA. Email: ISSN 1367-8868 Print/1469-8374 Online/06/040563-09 2006 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/13678860601032684


B. Gilbreath & M. U. Montesino

human resources, who are expected to produce high-quality work in a downsized or lean stang environment. And, if the stress is severe or prolonged enough, it results in strain (Beehr, 1995). Strains are often grouped into three general types: physical, psychological and behavioural. Physical strains, often referred to in the research literature as somatic complaints, include common stress responses such as muscle tension and headaches as well as stress-related illnesses that are the result of an over-taxed physiological system. The list of stress-related physical maladies continues to grow. Research shows, for example, that even musculoskeletal disorders are often related to job stress (Faucett, 2005). Psychological strains include reduced job satisfaction, anxiety, burn-out and depression. Behavioural strains include stress-related behaviours which can include heavier consumption of food, cigarettes, alcohol and medication, absenteeism, bouts of anger and less desirable interactions with family members and co-workers. Organizations also experience strains as a result of work-related stress. Absenteeism and turnover are likely to increase as employees ee a negative work environment. Grievances, complaints and lawsuits are likely to increase as overly stressed employees seek redress. And health insurance premiums and workers compensation rates increase as organizations experience ratings (e.g. injury rates) begin to reect the eects the workplace is having on employees. Therein lies an important opportunity lies for the HRD profession: assessing and helping reshape the psychosocial work environment to create healthier workplaces, healthier employees and healthier bottom lines. This eort is aimed at more than increased job satisfaction and reduced turnover; it is aimed at protecting employee and organizational health. Assessing the Psychosocial Work Environment Too often the onus for dealing with stressful working conditions is placed exclusively on employees. Organizations need to do more than oer an occasional stressmanagement course or sponsor periodic stress busters. The goal is to go beyond managing stress exclusively through individual-based coping eorts by identifying stressors and taking appropriate action. A tool that will help HRD professionals do that is the stress audit. A stress audit is a systematic approach to measuring stressors and stress moderators in the workplace. Stress audits can help HRD professionals identify barriers to performance in organizations that traditional HRD interventions such as training needs assessment alone will not. And conducting them and taking appropriate action is a means of expanding HRDs role, its visibility and its contribution to the bottom line. Although stress audits are the province of occupational health (OH) professionals in some countries, in others organizations rarely if ever employ or consult with OH practitioners. What to Measure Stress audits should address organization-specic stressors, but they should also cast a net for a range of recognized stressors and health-promoting factors. There is a broad array of organizational factors that can be assessed, as indicated in Table 1.

HRD and Employee Well-Being

Table 1. Potentially relevant work-environment factors Role overload Role conict Role ambiguity Job control Social support Stressful work events Hassles Monotony Expectations/psychological contracts Uncertainty Supervisor behaviour Person-environment t


Stress audits should be tailored to t the purpose and location. That said, we recommend including four factors in nearly all audits: job control, role overload, social support and supervisor behaviour. We highlight these factors because their eects on employee well-being are signicant and well-established, and they are pertinent to nearly all jobs and work settings. Furthermore, we believe a working knowledge of these factors will serve HRD professionals well in identifying and measuring barriers to performance that are often overlooked in the context of the traditional HRD role. Job control. Job control involves the extent to which employees control various aspects of their work. An assembly line worker in a low-empowerment setting is an example of someone with low job control. A university professor, on the other hand, is an example of a worker with a high-control job. Research consistently nds that workers in low-control jobs are less healthy than those in high-control jobs (Karasek, 1990; Spector, 2002). There are various explanations for that, but most boil down to the fact that lack of control is generally stressful and unrewarding. Furthermore, there is evidence suggesting that employees in low-control jobs engage in less on-the-job learning (Taris and Feu, 2004). A challenge is how to address low-control jobs in a way that does not increase employee stress. Giving employees more control is not always a good idea, because some will not welcome additional control. Those with low job self-ecacy are likely to nd additional control threatening. So are those who work for punitive supervisors and those who work in an environment where every mistake is viewed as a catastrophe. Under those circumstances, assuming more control is risky. Common-sense caveats also apply. For example, employees will not be pleased to take on control of tasks they view as legitimately the supervisors job, those that they perceive as unfairly increasing their workload or those for which they feel unqualied. Therefore, eorts to increase job control should be undertaken with care (Gilbreath, 2004). HRD professionals can educate managers about the importance of job control for employee health. They also can help identify low-control jobs and areas within jobs that need attention. Dwyer and Ganster (1991) developed a good survey-based measure of job control that can be used to identify of which aspects of jobs


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employees lack control, including the variety of tasks performed, the order in which tasks are performed, pacing, scheduling of rest breaks, work procedures and policies, and arrangement of the physical environment. Role overload. Role overload usually refers to situations in which an employee has too much to do in the time available (i.e. quantitative overload). The term qualitative overload is also sometimes used, referring to situations in which an employees work is so complex it becomes a stressor. Although occasional bouts with role overload are probably unavoidable in most jobs, it is a concern. Role overload is correlated with heavy smoking, elevated serum cholesterol, hypertension, increased heart rate, job dissatisfaction, lower quality of performance and feelings of tension, anger and personal failure (Jex, 1998; Sales, 1969). We can expect, then, that chronic role overload will aect employee health and healthcare costs. While some employees can endure role overload, many will show signs of strain. Role overload also runs counter to the desire by many employees for work-life balance. Some will opt to solve that dilemma by leaving an overloaded job. Others will stick it out but develop health conditions that may curtail their career advancement or reduce their organizational tenure. Management strategy in many industries makes overload a likely occurrence. Forrant (pers. comm., 11 September 2002) describes the prevailing paradigm this way: In the present economy, with the heavy emphasis on lean production strategies and very lean stang patterns and the continual tinkering by managerial consultants and others to gure out how to get more out of fewer workers, the tendency is to run the system as hard as possible, detect the stress points, and then dial things down a bit because they know theyve reached the line in the sand, so to speak, with their workforce. A short-term approach to stang seems to prevail: employ as few employees as possible, work them to full capacity and replace them when they burn out. It is less expensive short term to increase overtime rather than to hire more employees. That approach, however, does not take into account the resulting ineciencies from stress-related illness, absenteeism and turnover. A more balanced perspective on what constitutes good management is needed. Ecient use of organizational resources is necessary, but human resources are more complex than raw materials or machines. Although not typically in charge of stang, HRD professionals, in their role as strategic partners, may be able to foster a long-run mindset in how their organization evaluates stang and development costs. People can work to a high degree of capacity and feel good about doing so because it provides feelings of mastery and accomplishment. But they need time for recovery after periods of high work demand. Williams and Cooper argue that organisational muscles develop when people are stretched and challenged but are damaged when theyre stretched too far (1999, p. 33). Their muscle metaphor is useful. In weight training one works a particular muscle group hard, but then allows time for recovery before working it again. The same approach will generally be helpful to employees. Employees will willingly work hard for a good employer, but

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periods of less intensive work will be needed too. HRD professionals, therefore, need to educate managers about role overloads implications and the importance of actively monitoring for it. So far, we have considered work factors that stem primarily from the work itself (i.e. job control and role overload). Now we will focus on factors that stem primarily from the people in the workplace: social support and supervisor behaviour. As with the design of tasks, the social environment also needs to be engineered to meet human needs, and we believe HRD professionals are the ones to do the engineering. As Bernthal et al. (2004) indicate with their learning and performance wheel, an expanded view of HRD reecting current trends in the profession increasingly emphasizes learning and performance rather than the traditional HRD emphasis primarily on training and development. Social support. Although there are a number of sub-categories of social support, they boil down to two main types: emotional support and instrumental support. Emotional support includes things like listening, showing you care and providing moral support. This can be accomplished by individual attention from managers, supplemented by organization-wide strategies such as employee counselling services. Instrumental support involves doing something to help, whether it is tangible, such as pitching in, or informational, such as providing advice, coaching, shadowing, mentoring or on-the-job training. Associations between social support and physical health were rst noted in the mid-1970s, and we now know that social support is an important factor promoting mental and physical health (Uchino et al., 1996). Higher levels of social support are associated with better cardiovascular, endocrine and immune system function, and also with lower levels of sickness absence (Uchino et al., 1996). There is evidence that social support at work can reduce healthcare costs. Manning et al. (1996), for example, found that doctors oce costs were lower for employees who had high social support than for those with low social support. Social support has also being found to increase transfer of learning from the training site to the work environment (Brinkerho and Montesino, 1995). HRD professionals can help create a supportive work environment. Emphasizing the importance of supportive social relations during employee socialization is a start. This should be reinforced by fostering a culture of teamwork, encouraging cooperation via buddy systems and performance-support groups, matching mentors to ge s and training employees in how to provide the right type of social support prote at the right time. And, because a supportive style of supervision helps to protect employees from tension, depression, emotional exhaustion and health complaints (Landeweerd and Boumans, 1994; Thompson et al., 2005), it is especially important that HRD professionals ensure that supervisors understand the importance of social support and reect on their crucial role in building a supportive work environment. Although both employees and supervisors in lean, downsized organizations will nd it dicult to take time to support others, this is just the type of environment where it is most needed and has the greatest eect (Karlin et al., 2003; Manning et al., 1996). Supervisor behaviour. Although the HRD literature has stressed the fact that supervisors can engineer bad performance (Gilbert, 1978), supervisors are also


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important and often overlooked inuences on employee well-being (Donaldson, 2003; Gilbreath and Frew, 1997). Studies have found strong associations between employees well-being and their perceptions of how considerate their supervisors are (Duxbury et al., 1984; Seltzer and Numerof, 1988; Stout, 1984). Employees working for supervisors who are too hard-driving or inconsiderate, for example, have more psychological strain and health problems (Ganster et al., 1990). Although not yet explicitly recognized in the management literature, it is clear that considerate supervision is a fundamental component of a psychologically healthy work climate (Gilbreath, 2004). Furthermore, supervisors eects on employees are not a function only of consideration. Fundamental supervisor behaviours such as planning and delegation also are associated with employees job stress and psychological wellbeing (Gilbreath and Benson, 2004). Therefore, in addition to being vigilant for stressors such as role overload and low job control, supervisors need to monitor and manage their own behaviour. HRD professionals are likely to be in the vanguard of eorts to promote healthy supervisor behaviour. They can facilitate supervisor self-assessment and reection, and they can create organization-wide management and supervisor development initiatives including training, role-modelling and feedback that would help supervisors increase their use of positive practices and reduce their use of negative practices. Changing supervisor behaviour is not likely to be easy, and one-shot training programmes are not recommended. HRD managers will need to forge learning alliances (Brinkerho and Gill, 1994) to enlist higher-level managers in this eort by asking them to serve as role models and show they value supervisors use of good practices and disapprove of negative practices. To reinforce its importance, a supervisor-behaviour dimension should be incorporated into the performance appraisal/reward system. It would also be helpful to measure supervisors contribution to the toxicity or health of the work environment, and HRD professionals should consider incorporating this into their needs-assessment and organizationalanalysis activities. Choosing Someone to Help A stress audit should be designed by someone qualied to do so. Here are some things to look for when choosing a consultant, whether in-house or external. First, we believe it is preferable to nd someone with research experience concerning workplace psychosocial factors. Some consultants lack more than a supercial understanding of these factors. The key is to assess how well a potential vendor is keeping up with the relevant literature. One way to do that might be to ask potential vendors to discuss what they know about each of the work-environment factors listed in Table 1 and how those factors are associated with employee well-being. Second, look for someone who knows the importance of taking time on the frontend for identifying site-specic stressors for further investigation. Even well-designed standardized questionnaire instruments often need to be supplemented to measure site-specic issues. In-house consultants (e.g. OH or OD professionals) may be in a good position to carry out this task, provided they also possess the expertise outlined above.

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Third, nd someone who knows how to gather and analyse data appropriately. A combination of quantitative (e.g. survey) and qualitative (e.g. interview) approaches is generally recommended when assessing a work environment. As Dugdill notes: limited methods of measurement have consequently led to development of workplace health programmes that have been narrow in focus and have lacked relevance to the target population. Such programmes have often struggled to sustain adherence and have failed to reect the true complexity of the organizational setting and the needs of employees. (Dugdill, 2000:1738) When analysing the quantitative data, going beyond company-wide averages to investigate departmental and work group dierences is preferable. Company-wide averages can mask striking dierences among work groups or types of employees (Williams and Cooper, 2002). Competence in analysing quantitative data with statistical techniques such as regression analysis or structural equation modelling is a positive indicator. Someone with sucient skills should be able to describe how they will analyse the data, including testing whether the data t the assumptions of the statistical methods they are planning to use. Similarly, there are protocols for gathering, condensing and structuring, and analysing qualitative data that should be followed (Schilling, 2006). Fourth, ask potential vendors to provide evidence of their past successes. In a similar vein, nd out how the vendor intends to assess the eectiveness of their proposed intervention (T. Klein, pers. comm., 10 August 2006). Conclusion HRD professionals have been concerned in recent decades about showing the professions value added to the rm (Brinkerho, 1987; Brinkerho and Gill, 1994; Phillips, 1996; Robinson and Robinson, 1989). This is a more dicult task, in many ways, than for professions where costs saved or revenues generated are easier to calculate. Stress audits, followed with appropriate interventions, however, oer opportunities for showing bottom-line contribution when combined with pre- and post-measurement of key outcome variables. Key outcomes will undoubtedly include costs and productivity, but quality-of-work-life indicators will also be pertinent. Stress audits show enough promise for immediate application in most organizations (Mikkelsen and Gundersen, 2003; Ormond et al., 2003). In fact, if pursued with diligence, HRD professionals can proactively monitor and help re-shape the work environment to provide their organization with a competitive advantage. HRD professionals can help organizations move beyond secondary interventions that attempt to help employees cope with stressors. They can lead primary interventions that look for organizational causes of ill health and do something about them. If they do, the result should be healthier employees, healthier organizations and a greater understanding of HRDs potential for transforming organizations.


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