Tips to Navigate the Brave New Workplace

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Ashley: Hello and welcome to Health and Safety to Go, a CCOHS podcast.
As you may know, CCOHS hosts a yearly Forum, the Changing World of Work, which is returning after a pandemic hiatus this year and will take place in Halifax Nova Scotia in September.
One of the esteemed speakers who will be joining us is Dr. Julian Barling, Borden Chair of Leadership in the Smith School of Business at Queen's University. Dr. Barling’s most recent book is called Brave New Workplace: Designing Productive, Healthy and Safe Organizations.

Dr. Barling, thank you for being here.

Dr. Julian Barling: Thank you for inviting me.

Ashley: Tell us a little about your work and what inspired you to write Brave New Workplace.

Dr. Barling: Sure, it actually goes back, not even several years, but several decades, to the early 1980s and it was a specific incident; in 1980, our first child was born. And I was looking for some empirical advice about how we handle the effect of, or what even was work and family then. And turned to the literature and there was absolutely nothing. The best advice that was being given was that “employed mums” as they called them then, working mums, should work part-time. What we found out was that when we tried that it really didn't work. Your employers thought that you were full-time, and your family thought you were full-time, and the burden was incredible. So, I became interested in this whole issue and was researching the work and family by, I think 1982 1983. I stayed on the issue of work and family for quite a few years and transitioned that from to, to broader questions about employee well-being and then employee safety and stayed on that issue for decades. More recently, and by that, I mean the last decade or two decades or so, I became interested in leadership. And there's a tremendous, and justified, interest in employee’s well-being at work, across organizations across our society. And it's admirable. And it's, you know, and we've waited too long.

And somehow leaders have escaped this focus. So together with my grad students and myself, we started looking at leaders’ well-being.

After I completed my book, The Science of Leadership, and I finished it in 2013, I decided I really wanted to pull this all together and write a book of this nature which was not intended for researchers. It was intended for what I would call “people who could use the information”, the same, as I did, in The Science of Leadership. Could I take the immense body of literature? And there really is an immense body of literature on working well-being and translate the research for people who could use it. So practicing managers, Executive MBA students, and so forth.

I started in 2014 and have to say, I ran out of steam and just stopped on the project.

Ashley: It happens sometimes!

Dr. Barling: It happens all too often. But then sitting at home in my basement, in about August September of the first year of the pandemic. It became totally crystallized and I was really stimulated by the following question. I know I was getting asked, and people like myself [were] getting asked, to do webinars and talks and speeches on what will work look like at the end of the pandemic. And when I was thinking about it and thinking, what other people are saying, I realized most of what we were saying was going to be wrong, and I thought that we had such a large body of knowledge that surely, the question should not be what will work look like. That can we not help but say what should work look like moving forward from the pandemic? and that's when I dived back into it. And Brave New Workplace is really my take on, based on 80 to 90 years’ worth of research, starting perhaps with Marie Jahoda back in the 1930s, her research on unemployment. Based on what we know, what should work look like, if it is to be productive healthy and safe?

Ashley: Well, that's a perfect segue. What would you say, Dr. Barling, are the most important factors in creating a workplace that's productive, healthy, and safe?

Dr. Barling: So, looking across, you know, what's almost a century of research and it's not just research its research and it's the ideas from practitioners. So, I would say it goes further than being evidence-based and I would call it evidence-informed. I've been involved in organizations for nearly four decades and I think the evidence and experience tells us that there are seven elements. It’s high-quality leadership, it's a sense of autonomy, a feeling of belongingness, of fairness, a sense of growth and development that the organization stimulates your growth and development, the belief that your work is meaningful, and of course, that your work is safe. And I think that when we examine those seven elements or dimensions, what we realized is, that these seven elements are interrelated, they're not independent based practices. And it's an important point because back in the 90s and the 2000s, organizations were searching for Best Practices. An example of how they are related, is it would possibly be dangerous to provide people with autonomy. If we also didn’t provide safety training, it would perhaps be benefiting your competitors, your rivals. If you insured high quality leadership, high quality work and you didn't give people the opportunity to use what they learned. So, we're talking about inter-related practices.
I think what we also know, and certainly it's a strong point in Brave New Workplace, is that we don't manage in one way for health or safety and in another way for performance, even though that does happen in organizations. You certainly do hear managers telling us that “I would never manage safety in that way, because it's too important”. It turns out that what drives high quality performance drives safety, so performance, health, and safety, are inter-related. And I think that's an important message. So, the book is really evidence-informed but also a strong theme across the book is we don't have to turn organizations upside down to make meaningful differences. It's the small meaningful changes to work that will make the kind of difference in people's everyday experiences. That will help them ensure that work is healthy, safe, and productive.

Ashley: Some of the themes that you explore in the book are how social movements in the climate crisis are poised to affect the workplace of the future. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Dr. Barling: Sure, if I could start with the climate crisis? Because I think it's probably something that people haven't yet thought much about. But it's not that long ago in Canada that we were experiencing historic heat waves in British Columbia, in Alberta, Yukon, in the Northwest Territories, and we read about the number of deaths that were literally horrifying. The effects of such heat waves are not isolated to just people in apartment buildings who don’t have air conditioning. As one example, outside workers are significantly affected by climate events, such as that. As might be inside workers, who have no access to air conditioning and are working in incredibly, hot, humid, workplaces. Some research by June-Soo Park and his colleagues I think really, really illuminates this. So, they conducted their research in California and it's a really intriguing study. They combined Workers Comp data with people's postal codes, and the date on which they were working. And what they can show is that when temperatures increased to between 24.4 and 32 degrees Celsius, there's an increase of five to seven percent in injuries. When temperatures increase above the 32% and up to 37 degrees, there's a further increase in injuries of between 10 to 15%.

So, I think that what we're going to find is that the climate crisis will have a direct effect on occupational safety. To interrelate this with social movements, of course, the effects are not felt equally of the climate crisis. The spread is inequitable and the bottom twenty percent of earners, we know, suffer five times the effects of these increases in heat. June-Soo Park’s research goes a step further and shows that these negative effects of the climate crisis might be preventable. What they could show was that these effects were decreased by a third after California introduced regulations that mandated employers to protect workers at certain temperature levels by requiring organizations to have water, shade, and rest during periods of excessive heat. And I think this demonstrates how small changes in working conditions will have very, very significant effects.

So yes, the climate crisis is going to affect health and safety. But organizations can take small steps and have meaningful outcomes in terms of worker well-being.

Ashley: What are some tools that Forum attendees will be able to take back to their workplaces after your session at the Changing World of Work called Navigating the Brave New Workplace?

Dr. Barling: I think are specific lessons and the specific lessons would be the seven dimensions. I think a strong message within that is you don't have to do - your organization doesn't have to implement all seven. In fact, your organization should not try and implement all seven. There would just require too much change. Instead, I think the important thing would be which of the seven is most closely aligned with who you are, what you do, what are your strengths and so forth. And, and don't just look at one factor you could interrelated factors. So possibly two maybe three and remember that it's the smallest meaningful changes, they're going to have the greatest effect in the long term. I think the knowledge these seven are evidence-informed can give management some significant degree of comfort that they're heading in the right direction. And knowing that we're focusing on organizational change. We’re not targeting personal change or personality change. I think that the, the research and the practical experience over the last many decades suggest that while organizational change is certainly difficult, it will be easier to implement than trying to get these big effects through personality changes and so forth.

It's the challenge of changing the workplace rather than the people in the workplace. And I think last, it's an optimistic and proactive approach. We're not just helpless victims of a very complex environment. We have the opportunity to go out there and construct our workplaces and our environments in ways that enable us to shape our common futures.

Ashley: Dr. Barling is there anything else you'd like our audience to know?

Dr. Barling: No, I think that's it.

Ashley: Thank you so much for being our guest today. You can learn more about…

Dr. Barling: Thank you.

Ashley: You're welcome! You can learn more about Dr. Barling’s work on his website Julian

Thanks for listening.