Cover Story

When Janet Hurwich, PhD, visited a San Francisco law firm to evaluate it for the California Psychological Association Psychologically Healthy Workplace awards, her stereotypes about law firms evaporated into its people-friendly atmosphere.

The firm--Rogers, Joseph, O'Donnell and Phillips--has a fictional founder, "Millicent," who provides breakfast for every employee each Monday, and sends them flowers on their birthdays. Its office suites invite employee interaction with internal staircases and sitting areas on each floor where people can go to talk. The firm promotes employee skills even if workers' interests are not related to their current jobs: For example, the firm supported a secretary in expanding her computer skills and now she is working on the firm's Web page and other computer projects.

Rogers, Joseph, O'Donnell and Phillips also goes to great lengths to create events that involve every person, such as "library week," which promotes book discussions. And when the firm had a downturn in fortunes, the partners told Hurwich, they met with everyone in the firm to discuss the situation frankly. Afterwards, some employees left, while others worked harder to get through the crunch.

The quality of the firm's ambiance was confirmed, says Hurwich, when management asked her to meet with a whole range of employees: "It is so clear when you sit down with a group of them that there is such an air of mutual respect that transcends the usual hierarchal structure."

The firm went on to win one of CPA's two first annual awards, a part of the APA-sponsored Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards Program. But Rogers, Joseph, O'Donnell and Phillips was not the only employer creating exceptional work environments for employees. CPA's awards committee uncovered several unique workplaces, and found the evaluation experience exhilarating and eye-opening. Afterwards, they often felt they had helped the companies better understand psychology's value in the workplace.

The companies had gained an understanding that psychologists offer businesses a wide range of helpful and unique services such as coaching. And Hurwich feels they would likely call a practitioner if they had a problem.

On the other hand, says Hurwich, the psychologists felt privileged to get an inside understanding of businesses in their community that they would not otherwise have had.

Indeed, says Hurwich, she is now "passionate" about the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards program. She says, "I think it's one of the best projects the APA has ever done."

Through this initiative, the Practice Directorate is helping to develop and build psychologically healthy workplace awards programs in all states. Directorate officials anticipate having state-level winners eventually compete for a national award given by APA.

Catching on in states

APA's workplace awards effort has blossomed in states across the country in the last 18 months. After the New Jersey Psychological Association gave the first award in 1999, five state associations held programs in 2000: Arkansas, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Vermont. This year the number may go up to 19.

Coordinated by APA's Business of Practice Network (BOPN), which has representatives from every state association, the program helps state psychological associations host competitions to identify companies with impressive practices in employee involvement, family support, employee growth and development, and health and safety.

"The project has energized BOPN's efforts," says David Nickelson, PsyD, JD, director of the office of technology policy and special projects for the Practice Directorate. "It is promoting a relationship between psychologists and the business community and gaining visibility for both."

Most of the awards have received major local news coverage, sometimes featuring extensive discussions by psychologists about workplace stress. The Connecticut and New Jersey psychological associations convinced their governors to proclaim a "Psychologically Healthy Workplace" month--November in Connecticut and October in New Jersey. The Vermont Psychological Association hosted state legislators and the state secretary of commerce at its award presentation.

The awards have also put psychologists into some forums they might not otherwise be in. Associations have advertised the award in business publications. Some of the winners have asked that the award be presented to them a second time during the conferences where they meet with their peers.

Hurwich notes they feel it's good publicity for them and may help them attract quality applicants for their openings. The Arkansas Psychological Association has developed a PowerPoint presentation for its members to use in talks at Rotary, Kiwanis, chambers of commerce and other meetings.

There have been other types of cross-fertilization. The Vermont Psychological Association presented its award at a meeting entitled, "Mental health contributes to business wealth," and included on the agenda workshops for businesses on workplace substance abuse, mental health and insurance issues and workshops for psychologists on how to work with businesses. Hurwich and other psychologists who have done site visits report conversations with managers about what psychologists do. Associations have also found the businesses take a keen interest in learning what other workplaces do to help employees.

Fueling the focus

In light of those successes, APA's Committee for the Advancement of Professional Practice is pumping more resources into the program. This year, it is providing $1,000 to state associations whose proposed program is consistent with a brief set of criteria. The directorate is sending how-to kits to each state psychological association's BOPN representative. The kit materials, which include tools such as checklists and templates, are designed to help states plan and implement a successful awards program.

One reason for the project's rapid expansion is businesses' new understanding of the role employee health and satisfaction plays in a company's success.

"The question is no longer just how to contain health-care costs, but how your business can be best served by a psychologically healthy workplace," states Russ Newman, PhD, JD, APA's executive director for practice.

Flip Brown, BOPN representative from the Vermont Psychological Association who is leading the Vermont award program, emphasizes that the award is also about educating psychologists to work with the business community. The profession has felt under siege from managed care, he says, but because businesses purchase the managed-care policies, "they are the primary customers of mental health."

In the meantime, psychologists have gotten to know some very interesting businesses. The Vermont Psychological Association's award highlighted Hemmings Motor News, which publishes "the bible" for collector car hobbyists. It offers employees two kinds of fresh fruit each day, $200 a year for health clubs or other sports and fitness activities and up to $3,000 for child or elder care. In addition, workers get paid time off to vote, give blood or be with a child on the first day of school and $3,500 for education, including $500 for courses unrelated to their jobs.

The Massachusetts Psychological Association gave one of its awards to the Mitre Corporation, a research and technology firm committed to developing a "world class work environment." Its benefits include an onsite fitness center with a personal trainer, take-home dinners from the cafeteria, an occupational health suite with a visiting chiropractor and masseuse, paid time-off to participate in community activities, adoption assistance, long-term care insurance and regular employee surveys.

Another of the California awards went to Cox Communications, which has a "Cyber Agents," work-at-home program for physically challenged people and those with excessive commute times. To build a sense of community, the firm has developed new software for posting peer photos and maintaining chatrooms.

Further Reading

For more information on the awards, contact APA's Practice Directorate at (202) 336-5500.