Professional Point

This month the APA Practice Directorate will hold its first annual National Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards (PHWA) ceremony. Six companies will receive awards for using a diverse array of practices and programs that actively attempt to enhance employee health and well-being, as well as organizational performance. Presentation of the national awards culminates years of PHWA program development at the state level, in which more than 200 companies in 35 states, provinces and territories have been recognized.

The program originated with the New Jersey Psychological Association, which, in 1999, presented the first awards to companies that distinguished themselves in their efforts to take care of employees. Beyond highlighting laudable employer practices, the awards program seemed to have great potential to facilitate relationship-building between psychology and the employer community. Perhaps most importantly, the program afforded an opportunity to discuss with employers the value of psychological services for their employees and their workplaces. For example, information from psychology about effective ways to reduce stress combined with estimates that job stress costs U.S. industry $300 billion a year in absenteeism, diminished productivity, employee turnover and direct medical, legal and insurance fees was clearly of great interest to employers. It was also apparent that the winning companies very much appreciated the recognition.

With the New Jersey program as an example, the Practice Directorate-through its State Leadership Conference and its Business of Practice Network-began encouraging all jurisdictions to consider developing similar awards programs. We anticipated that as psychological associations created programs, and with increasing standardization of the selection process, national awards could be given to the very best companies from among the many state-level winners.

The resulting national awards program looks specifically at five categories of workplace practices constituting a psychologically healthy workplace: employee involvement, work-life balance, employee growth and development, health and safety, and employee recognition. Organizational practices within these categories that affect employees and the work environment include such things as employee participation in decision-making, skills training and leadership development, flexible schedules and benefit plans, easy access to mental health and substance abuse services, programs to prevent and manage workplace stress, programs that promote healthy lifestyle and behavior choices, and recognition of individual and team performance. Importantly, the beneficial effects of these kinds of programs and practices on employees and organizations is well documented. Benefits to employees include increased job satisfaction, improved morale, enhanced motivation and improved ability to manage stress. Organizational benefits include improved quality, performance and productivity, reduced absenteeism and turnover, fewer accidents and injuries, and lower health-care costs.

Although research has demonstrated the link between these various employer practices and employee health and well-being and organizational performance, the synergistic effect of multiple practices and programs has not yet been well studied. One of the anticipated benefits of the National PHWA Program is that, over time, a database can be accumulated and the impact of multiple programs and practices that collectively constitute a psychologically healthy workplace can be analyzed. Although creating a psychologically healthy workplace is far from a "one-size-fits-all" process, a database may help to determine the most effective approaches to creating such a workplace.

In the meantime, shining a spotlight through the awards program on companies that have implemented psychologically healthy workplace practices provides an excellent means of public education. Not only does considerable information about psychology get shared with the employer community, but the mainstream media has typically covered the award winners, thereby providing much information to the public at large.

The Practice Directorate's program also has been recognizing companies for specific best practices: a particularly innovative or creative single program or activity in one of the five categories of workplace practices. For example, last year a senior-living facility in Utah was recognized for a program that encouraged family members of residents and staff to participate regularly in the facility's activities.

The PHWA program is taking a big step forward with this year's first annual national awards. But already, the program has proved to be a far better way to discuss psychological services with employers than traditional attempts to simply try to "sell" employers on a richer mental health benefit package-a message that does not receive a very warm reception in the current economic climate.