In recent news…
Events unfolding in Dallas recently with two nurses contracting the Ebola virus are nothing short of tragic for all involved. Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national who traveled to the United States not long ago, was diagnosed with Ebola September 30 and succumbed on October 8 to this deadly disease which was first discovered in 1976 near the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Nina Pham, one of the nurses who treated Duncan, was the first healthcare worker in America to become infected. Nurse Amber Vinson, who also treated Duncan, tested positive several days later. Now both nurses suffer the ravages of the Ebola virus and their families face the uncertainty of what the future holds for their loved ones stricken with this deadly virus.
As troubling as this situation is it offers a rare moment of contemplation, not only for the healthcare industry but for business leaders in all industries. The story unfolding in Dallas reveals the tremendous impact conditions in the workplace environment have on employee performance and potentially the success or failure of a business.
Given that the Gallup Management Journal reports only 30% of workers in North America are engaged in their jobs, the staggering impact of the 70% who are disengaged is typically buried in corporate financial statements or obscured by the milieu of daily life. Now in Dallas, the damaging implications of a non-supportive workplace environment are being played out on major media outlets in real time with the human toll exposed for the world to see.
Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital spokesperson Wendell Watson, quoted by ABC News, stated, “Patient and employee safety is our greatest priority and we take compliance very seriously. We have numerous measures in place to provide a safe working environment, including mandatory annual training and a 24/7 hotline and other mechanisms that allow for anonymous reporting.”
Working conditions for the employee…
Countering Watson’s statement in the same ABC News report, “co-workers of a Dallas nurse who contracted Ebola from a sick patient say they worked for days without proper protective gear and that the hospital’s Ebola protocols and procedures were unclear and inadequate, leaving workers and hospital systems prone to contamination.” The nurses’ statement also revealed that “no one knew what the protocols were or were able to verify what kind of personal protective equipment should be worn and there was no training.”
RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, the largest nurses’ union in America, confirmed these statements were from nurses who “were in a position to know what had occurred at the hospital.” A day later Presbyterian Hospital nurse Briana Aguirre who cared for “her friend and co-worker Nina Pham after she tested positive for the Ebola virus” went public telling Matt Lauer on NBC Today show that “we never talked about Ebola.”
Here we have two radically different views of the same workplace environment. The view presented by the hospital spokesperson leads us to believe all the bases were covered. The fact that two nurses were infected with the Ebola virus while working at the hospital brings into question the “safe working environment” hospital management claimed to have created. It is challenging to fathom that nurses, who have been properly trained and provided with the appropriate personal protective equipment would make the egregious error of not wearing the protective suits had they been available especially given the gravity of the threat posed by Ebola.
Then we have the nurses speaking through a union spokesperson. They tell a completely different story from that of the hospital spokesperson regarding the conditions they experienced in the workplace. The nurses claim they had little or no support in terms of clear policies and procedures in identifying or treating patients infected with the Ebola virus, insufficient training, and improper personal protective equipment. The fact that all but one of the nurses remained anonymous due to fear of reprisal from hospital officials underscores a significant lack of trust present within the organization.
The validity of either position may matter less than the fact that hospital officials and the nurses are so dramatically misaligned in their perspectives. The vastness of this gap, exacerbated by lack of trust and highly stressed employees, clearly highlights key characteristics of a non-supportive workplace environment. Obviously, this is a bad situation for hospital management, the nurses, other employees, and for the public served by this institution. But still there are important lessons business leaders can glean from this tragedy.
The 70% figure of disengaged workers as reported by the Gallup Management Journal is well-known in the HR community. It may not be as well-known in the business community that there is a strong correlation between conditions in the workplace environment and the level of employee engagement. Towers Watson, a leading global professional services company, reveals this correlation in a 2012 report on its Global Workforce Study which surveyed more than 32,000 employees in 29 markets around the world. “The drivers of sustainable engagement focus almost entirely on the culture and the relational aspects of the work experience.” The Towers Watson study was “designed to help companies better understand their diverse employee segments and the factors that influence employee performance on the job.”
Thus, business leaders who create non-supportive workplace environments either by design or default limit the productivity of their workforce and weaken their company’s competitive advantage in these challenging economic times. Additionally, they increase the risk of a health, safety or environmental incident negatively impacting employees, clients, customers or members of the community. This could easily tarnish the corporate brand.
Health, safety, and environmental professionals know the importance of creating conditions in the workplace environment that promote safety. Experts in risk management speaking at the 2014 HSE Excellence for Offshore Operations Forum cited the importance of “removing all barriers to safety” and “involving corporate leaders” in setting good examples with their words and behaviors. This may present a challenging balance to managers charged with generating profits knowing that ensuring work is performed in a safe environment; proper protocols are documented, clearly communicated, and followed; employees are provided the proper safety equipment; and necessary training has been provided as a preemptive measure all come with a price tag attached.
The bottom line is what do employees experience when they walk in the door? One of the tools commonly used to assess the employee experience and evaluate conditions in the workplace environment is an employee survey. Consider the chances that employees in a situation like that unfolding in Dallas would respond in a forthright manner to a workplace survey especially if they thought management could link them to any negative feedback provided in the survey regardless of how accurate their comments might be. In non-supportive work environments where trust between employees and management has eroded, surveys alone are not a valid reflection of conditions in the workplace. The first step back from the edge of the cliff is for corporate executives to restore employee trust in management.
“Trust is a fundamental component in building a successful business and a low trust environment can destroy a company,” states Dwight Mihalicz, president and founder of Effective Managers Inc. and director of the Dean’s Advisory Board at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa. “We know from research published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), that just 29% of employees think that trust in senior management is strong at their workplace.”
According to the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer, “treating employees well is one of the most important things a company can do to rebuild trust.” Edelman, one of the world’s largest public relations firms, indicates that only 31% of companies treat employees well. That figure has a striking similarity to the 30% of workers who Gallup Management Journal reports are engaged in their jobs and the 29% of employees that the CIPD indicates have trust in senior management.
These statistics indicate that nearly 70% of companies are infected with a virus that thrives in non-supportive work environments and eats away at employee morale, engagement, motivation, and productivity. The good news is that the cure is readily available, relatively simple, and there are no adverse effects. All it requires is for management to focus attention on increasing employee trust by treating employees with respect and dignity. Embracing employee engagement and partnering with employees to create supportive workplace environments increases the efficacy of the treatment and reduces the time to recovery. The inevitable result of continuing to do nothing to confront the spread of this virus is to heighten the risk that, figuratively speaking, even more nurses will end up occupying hospital beds instead of serving patients.