I recently returned from a very long, but worthwhile, journey to Porto Alegre, in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. I was invited to present by Ana Maria Rossi, President of the International Stress Management Association (ISMA), Brazil, in a two-day class on stress. Ana Maria was an amazing host and international author of numerous books on work and health. Brazil is a wonderfully diverse country, and the meeting was full of smart, thoughtful people from all over, including psychologists, occupational physicians, nurses, social workers, human resource specialists and consultants for both government agencies, NGOs and the private sector.

The highlight of my time in Brazil, after a two hour lecture simultaneously translated into Portuguese, was the following day when the class got to work together in groups to discuss a “case study” about a fictitious Brazilian organization that had used the Healthy Work Survey. The 60+ class participants were given the context of the organization which included that it was a public sector agency with 200 open positions, high turnover, and burnout. Using data from the survey on several common work stressors, they were to pretend to be consultants to this organization and recommend “interventions” or solutions to the work stressors that were putting employee health and safety at risk. 

Like many public sector organizations, job demands and workload were very high. In addition, job control was low. High job demands and low job control together, known as “job strain,” are an added risk for mental health disorders, burnout, and cardiovascular disease risk factors. Each group came up with similar short-term, medium-term, and long-term plans for changes. Many focused on supervisor/manager training as the first step, with the intent of helping new supervisors (promoted from within) learn good management skills so they could offer employees appropriate support and mitigate bullying or other toxic behaviors. Part of the training would include learning positive communication skills to provide a safe environment for employees to give feedback about streamlining workload and so also enhance “job control.” 

All groups were thoughtful about the need to hire more staff, given the high number of open positions and the high turnover of staff. One group had a particularly important insight–how to attract new hires and retain staff when there are such high levels of overwork, burnout, and poor morale. Here they suggested that, for the short term, health promotion and stress management programs might be helpful, along with providing “hours off” in exchange for participation. 

There are no quick answers to creating healthy workplaces. Innovative ideas and a willingness to dig in and make the “business” case to leadership, assess or diagnose the sources of work stress, and foster employee collaboration on solutions to work stressors, are all fundamentals for change.

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