Home All Psychologically Healthy Workplace Conference Part I

Psychologically Healthy Workplace Conference Part I

written by Kathryn Britton 22 March 2009

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Morteza Farajian

Morteza Farajian

I attended the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Conference (PHWC) in Washington, D.C. from February 28 to March 2. Jocelyn Davis and I are co-teaching an independent study class at the University of Maryland for graduate students who are researching various aspects of positive workplaces. Two of our students, Morteza Farajian and Man Clara Cheung, attended the conference as reporters. Morteza and I are writing about days 1 and 3, while Clara and I are writing about day 2. Clara took all the pictures.

Here are links to Part II and Part III.

Psychologically Healthy Workplace

Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards

David Ballard

David Ballard

The conference revolved around the award ceremony for the 2009 Psychologically Healthy Workplace awards. In the words of David Ballard, the conference chair, “Creating a psychologically healthy workplace means more than just remediating problems. It is about promoting good health, enhancing performance, and creating a work environment where both employees and the organization can thrive.” Five National Psychologically Healthy Workplace awards were given:

In addition, nine Best Practice Honors were awarded. For video vignettes, podcasts, and references to more than 1900 articles, visit the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Resources for Employers page.

First Day, February 28
In a plenary session called “Optimizing Stakeholder Value in the Psychologically Healthy Workplace,” David W. Ballard opened the conference by talking through the model used in the awards process. He emphasized Communication and fitting practices into particular workplace contexts. He commented that companies that “get” the connection between employee well-being and organizational success tend to shift attention from maximizing shareholder value to optimizing stakeholder experience, accruing benefits such as increased performance, productivity, hiring selectivity, product/service quality, customer satisfaction, and so on. Successful companies take a systems approach and yet find there are many small changes that have big impacts.

Positively Healthy Workplace Model

Next came a panel with the following experts under the forum title “Just Because You Build It Doesn’t Mean They’ll Come: Engaging Employees for Optimal Results.”

  • Dr. Bob Nelson (BN), doctorate in management under Peter Drucker, dissertation topic, “Factors that Encourage or Inhibit the Use of Non-Monetary Recognition by U.S. Managers,” now president of Nelson Motivation, Ltd. Dr. Nelson talked about employee recognition in terms of Head (conceptual understanding), Hands (explicit best practices), and Heart (making it a priority).
  • Dr. Matthew Grawitch (MG), chair of the organizational studies program at St. Louis University and primary research consultant to the APA for the Psychologically Healthy Workplace program. Dr. Grawitch talked about resistance to change and lack of employee involvement as factors leading to program failures, and concluded that effective communication is the most important factor.
  • Dr. Rebecca Kelly (RK), Director of Health and Wellness programs at the University of Alabama as well as president of Element Health, Inc. Dr Kelly talked about motivation, engagement and the role of the employer in determining the success of workplace health enhancement programs.

Some of the questions answered by the panel are shown below.
Q: There are lots of programs that use employee input that still fail. Why?

MG: There are lots of reasons, but especially time. You need to build change into work flow so that people feel they have time.
RK: Here’s an example. Have ‘moving meetings’ where people get exercise by walking while they talk.

Q: What about incentives to motivate behavior changes and outcomes?

RK: We found two things worked: T-shirts and dollars, but after a few years, dollars were a hook but not a motivator.
BN: Money is a bribe. Stop the money, stop the behavior. I’ve tracked more than 50 behaviors that motivate and most do not cost a dime.

Q: Can you give one quick tip for successful programs?

MG: Find out what they really want and what will work in their context.
BN: Involve them in decisions and create something that has a buzz.
RK: Successful health programs are high touch and have high visibility. They include health advocates and ambassadors and people who tell stories of success. The more touch points, the better the outcome.

Q: How do you get management buyin?

BN: Use management’s language to talk to them. Mention what their competitors are doing.

Put Employee Well-Being and Customer Satisfaction First; Profit will follow.
One of the great pleasures of the conference was speaking to representatives of the companies who won awards. One common theme was that these employers were doing what they did because it was the right thing to do, not because of dollars, but the dollars followed. Deanna Smith and Deborah Odell from W R Systems, Ltd. explained that their employer intentionally prioritizes employee well-being and customer satisfaction ahead of profit, but that profit has come too. They benefit from large numbers of referrals from both satisfied customers and employees who love their jobs, giving them both access to new business and the pick of the talent pool. Their company has a family feeling where people find work not just a job.

Importance of Employee Recognition

Dr. Bob Nelson

Dr. Bob Nelson

Bob Nelson led this session about what leaders can do to counteract the downward spiral of our uncertain times. He argued that the role of good leaders is to give confidence to employees and help them be more engaged and less stressed. This can be done by revising goals to make success criteria reachable with current constraints, communicating clearly about what’s going on, and giving more autonomy and flexibility. Based on his research, one of the best ways to demonstrate confidence is to acknowledge and appreciate people for their achievements. When he asked the audience, “When was the last time you were recognized at work?” and “How did it make you feel?,” there was wide disparity in how long it had been, but a general consensus that sincere recognition made people feel good and energized.


He cited the following from the Maritz poll that employees in a recognition culture are:

  • 5 times more likely to feel valued
  • 7 times more likely to stay with the company
  • 6 times more likely to invest in the company
  • 11 times more likely to feel completely committed

Recognition doesn’t have to be expensive. There can be low-end rewards, such as gas cards, symbolic items such as engraved poker chips, time-off rewards such as vouchers for “calling in well” days, or even just frequent attention, such as checking in frequently, saying thanks, and being easily accessible. There are almost 1000 more ideas in his book on employee recognition. He illustrated with examples from companies including Texas Commerce Bank, Home Depot, Best Buy, Harbor Court Hotel, Starbucks, and Disney.

You Can Bring Your Whole Self to Work

Replacements Ltd. People

People from Replacements Ltd

During the reception, we ended the day with a conversation with Jeanine Falcon, Carol Harris, and Tim Watson from Replacements, Ltd. They described a workplace where people can bring their whole selves to the workplace and be accepted. Differences are not just accepted, they are celebrated. Their employer has been known to fire customers for lack of respect to employees. They have 7 years of data about their workplace programs which include translating company materials into several languages (they have a large Bosnian population), an onsite occupational health nurse, employee run emergency response teams, and people bringing their dogs to work. Their data shows that their health care costs have not escalated, turnover has not gone up, the accident rate and severity are both down, bringing insurance premiums down. They commented, “The numbers work, but we do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Perhaps in the eventual upturn, companies that wait until there is categorical proof of a business value will lag the pioneering companies who start because it’s the right thing to do and let that business benefit unfold.



Nelson, B. (2005, 2012). 1501 Ways to Reward Employees Workman Publishing Company; reprint edition.

Nelson, B. (1997). 1001 Ways to Energize Employees. Workman Publishing Company.

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