Humans in the Workplace


Until robots take over the world and human beings are literally out of the workplace, companies will need to do a far better job of addressing the human aspect of their workforce.

Each company is built, managed, and maintained by people. Each human being who has come through those doors has their own set of core beliefs, attitudes, values, assumptions, cognitions, and emotional and behavioral responses to all of that.

There are procedures in place that attempt to address workplace misconduct, harassment, abuse, and discrimination, and amend it appropriately.  But dehumanizing situations in the workplace continue to occur and victims of workplace misconduct are not granted the most compassionate response. 

With a restored spotlight on workplace safety, companies are being held to a higher standard regarding how they react and respond to their employees’ experiences.  

Now, what about prevention?

A new employee orientation jam-packed with a 1990s sexual harassment video!  Maybe some legal documentation about equal opportunities and banning discrimination. Or the classic, a printed handout about the company’s mission statement and core values. 

The way companies are addressing human and social issues within their organization may make the legal proceedings after an assault easier on the company – because, hey, they met their legal requirements. But what does that say about the company’s actual motivation and dedication to meeting their employees’ basic and fundamental right (their safety)? 

"What efforts, investments, or even risks do employers take to create a culture in which every human being is safe, respected, and appreciated?"

The standards for workplace prevention have remained shockingly low. The popular method to addressing human dysfunction in the workplace has been a relatively avoidant approach. But we can do better and we have experts and effective research outcomes to help us! ...It just may feel a little riskier than a VHS and signing some fine print.

Fundamental psychotherapy methods used to improve a person’s health and safety on an individual level are actually used to tackle mesosystem and exosystem level issues in our communities and our workplace. 

So, here is a prime example of the potentially uncomfortable yet effective healing process:

At the start of psychotherapy, clients and patients are handed a document titled, “Informed Consent.” There’s text that reads something like, 

“Psychotherapy can have benefits and risks. Because therapy often involves discussing unpleasant aspects of your life, you may experience uncomfortable feelings like sadness, guilt, anger, frustration, loneliness, and helplessness. “  

So, why in the hell do people voluntarily (or are even court mandated) go to individual or group therapy? Because learning to brave uncomfortable emotions and attend to issues directly actually help us move toward healthy behavior change (surprise!). Taking those “risks” opens up opportunities to be sincere, authentic, empowered, and solution-focused.

"Learning to brave uncomfortable emotions and attend to issues directly actually help us move toward healthy behavior change."

In preparation for clients’ alarmed response to the potential risks of participating in therapy, the very next line in the Informed Consent usually reads,

“Psychotherapy has also been shown to have benefits for people who go through it. Therapy often leads to better relationships, solutions to specific problems, and significant reductions in feelings of distress.”  

Think: Sailing through the storm to reach paradise. Or, crawling up a rocky mountain on a hot day to gain a new gorgeous perspective. 

Whether a person’s decision to go to therapy was self-motivated, demanded by significant others, or court mandated, there is something very powerful about taking a risk and facing discomfort alongside a professional who is trained to guide people through the process.

Full on group therapy may be a bit much for the workplace. But, we know from years of prevention and industrial/organizational psychological research, mental health interventions are effective in the workplace. Employers just need to collaborate more with the professionals who are experts in human functioning, behavior modification, conflict resolution, and the brain that makes it all happen - psychologists, social workers, public health workers, and therapists to name a few!

Bring mental health benefits, wellness resources, and the vague EEO hotline out of the thick HR information package and put it to work directly in the office.

Here are some recommendations & rationale:

  • Everyone in the company would significantly benefit from opportunities to openly and regularly discuss their workplace related concerns and challenges. 
  • Every single member of the company should be provided opportunities to actively learn and engage in improving their cultural and emotional competency and psychosocial functioning.
  • Open discussion and psychoeducational "opportunities" should be conducted in a cohesive group setting led by a trained facilitator and reinforced in private supervision sessions and in genuine follow-up amongst coworkers. 
  • With that said, managers need ongoing specialized education, coaching, and practice in navigating interpersonal, cultural, and social issues that emerge in the workplace. 

Executive staff are role models. They set the tone and standards for everyone on their team. Whether or not it is overtly stated, employees observe their managers to gain information about social and professional cues. 

From: How seriously do we take the dress code? How early can we leave Friday? Do we use our vacation and sick days? 

To: Do we comply with those fire drills? Do we do anything about those ethical issues? Do we address all of these crazy microaggressions? Does it matter if I tell anyone about how he touched me?  

When it comes to behavior modification and culture change, actions are more powerful then documentation and employees look to their management for what practices are acceptable.

So I’m going to be blunt here, X amount of years in the company (even X amount of years managing), JDs, MBAs, or BS in humanities are not prerequisites for tackling multifaceted complex cognitive distortions, abuse, and social issues that play out in the workplace. 

Those professionals are A-Mazing at business, finances, accounting, legal proceedings, and meeting the tasks of their job role. However, effectively supervising employees to prevent and recover from workplace misconduct requires other training and skills.

Comprehensive change is needed. A healthy and safe workplace is not created just through a new employee orientation and annual reviews. No hour long video of people with fluffy hair and massive shoulder pads (I really hate those videos) or endless pages of signed legal documents will effectively alter everyone’s behavior or the constructs that contribute to their behavior in the workplace. Though that method may feel safe and comfortable, it is clear that none of that will actually keep employees safe or prevent workplace misconduct, harassment, abuse, or discrimination. 

Building group cohesion, directly raising discussions about issues in the workplace, and challenging the status quo may feel terribly uncomfortable and risky. Yet (as we know from every aspect of human growth and healing), it is within that discomfort that our workplace culture can be shifted into a safe, rewarding, and productive environment for everyone involved.

Since organizations are still failing to actually create and maintain a healthy and inclusive environment for everyone, mental health professionals and employers need to collaborate more to really tap into and address the human aspect of Human Relations.