Why is the workplace becoming more stressful? This is the question that Brian Chambers and I have been struggling with for more than three years. We think that we have stumbled upon some insights that might help you if you share this question.
Brian was the Chair of the Veterans Appeal Board. He was witnessing an ever larger parade of young soldiers who had become disabled in their work asking to be pensioned off. Brian wanted to find out what was the real pressure that was causing this? Why did the obvious fix of providing more medical intervention to soldiers not seem to help? He asked this question about the military just as the Public Service itself had put the issue of the workplace near the top of its agenda as well. Surveys had revealed a growing morale problem based on what seemed to be workload and non supportive management. Plans for significant interventions were put in motion. These plans were largely based on introducing more flexibility into the workplace and in helping staff become more healthy
I had been the SVP for HR for CIBC. Back in 1991, in response to our own perception of growing stress in our workplace I too had brought in the "Mother of all Workplace Programs". We had flex, leaves of all sorts, part time benefits, fitness support. We brought in a brilliant young occupational health doctor, David Brown to help and to coach the senior executives. We had all the fixes that the Public Service were now espousing.
My problem in 2000 was that I knew something that many in the public service did not. I knew that I had failed to halt the slide by using these conventional fixes.
By 1993, we knew that we were not only not making headway but we were sliding into a pit. I knew this because we looked the real numbers - the banker in me. We found that our total cost for everything related to workplace stress, illness, absence, back fills and drugs was then $200 million a year. We ran the numbers out into 2000 and found that unless we did something that worked our stress-related costs would be in the region of $500 million. This got the Chairman's attention. His instruction to us was to find the real reasons why people were breaking down and to find a real fix.
I left shortly after to join Dr Fraser Mustard at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and it was David Brown who carried the CIBC torch and who subsequently had much of the breakthroughs that shifted our understanding of this problem from a dependence of beliefs with no science behind them, Alchemy, to a set of principles deeply rooted in 30 years of scientific research, Chemistry.
But before I review with you what we learned from David, and then from the US Army, BP and New York City, we want to add our own view of the context for action. At CIBC we introduced these programs in 1991 because we thought that somehow it would help us look good. After all, who likes the Banks? It was only in 1993 that CIBC woke up to the numbers involved and CIBC got really serious from a core business perspective.
So we asked, was this a nice to have issue or was it more serious than that. For a year, we tried to get the numbers but we failed in that. The task was too complex for the accounting system of the Public Service. At least from our end of it. So we did the next best thing and looked into the future. There was already a intuitive sense in the PS that the current workplace and hiring was going to be an issue. There is the famous, maybe apocryphal, story of the Clerk being told at the dinner table by his own children that they would never consider working for the PS.
Brian and I had arguably a more extreme context for action. We could see a near future that meant that having a more responsive workplace was not a nice to have but a survival issue. We could see a "vice" of powerful forces that were going to intersect in 10 years that would possibly cause the collapse of traditional organizations. By 2003 in the areas of airlines, book-selling, retailing we can see the first effects of the radically new organization confronting the traditional.
1. Who would we hire after the boomers retired? In 2016, Canada will have fewer young than all G8 countries. Not only fewer in number but fewer in quality as our education system is also in tatters with up to 40% of kids either not graduating or leaving school with very poor literacy and social skills.
2. A shift in values that reject the corporate world We have observed a radical shift in values by most of the best of the young who cannot find the freedom and self-expression that they demand in conventional workplaces. Consequently they drift, work for themselves or work for non-conventional employers.
3. The impact of new technology There is a disruptive power emerging in many technology sectors. In essence the need to have a large organization to own major tools is becoming passé. A band can make a CD, mix and edit it and distribute it without the need for a record label. This technology dis-intermediation is taking place all over the economy.
4. The acceleration of the pace and power of change. It is hard to believe that the internet has only been a presence since 1994. It is now ubiquitous. This process took 70 years for the telephone. Moore's law is still working. We can anticipate computing power costing $1000 to include most what is totally available today in 20 years. It is impossible to comprehend what this will mean.
Maybe, we asked, it was the inability of the rigid structures and the culture of the traditional command and control organization to cope and respond effectively to these forces that was the deeper issue. Maybe we have been working on the symptoms. We could see greenfield organizations thriving at the expense of traditional organizations. Could we find any evidence of some traditional organizations that were adapting?
This question lead us back to David Brown and to my old friends at CIBC