Ideas for Leaders #010

Sustainable People Policies for Sustainable Organizations

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Key Concept

Are human sustainability policies any less vital for a 21st Century organization than environmental ones? While the surface effects may not be so obvious, the impact on society can be huge. As pace-setting companies and cultures re-optimise toward ‘higher order fundamentals’ like human prosperity; well-being, happiness, satisfaction – employee health becomes a crucial conversation to have.

Idea Summary

Why does employee health receive so little consideration then, when examining sustainability policies in organizations? Most studies (and policies) focus on environmental sustainability. Of course eco-efficiency is and should be one of the very foremost concerns of our generation – but so too should human prosperity and ergo employee health. Some sustainability studies would have us believe, in terms of research attention, and also as a focus of company initiatives – that polar bears, for example, are more important than people.

The issues faced by companies that adopt environmental sustainability policies should be considered as parallel to those that focus on ‘human sustainability’. They are as important. Currently though, while companies have recently increased their efforts to become more energy efficient and environmentally conscious - going so far as to appoint eco-managers and even publicly report carbon emission - similar efforts focused on people are not nearly as widespread.

One of the key indicators of human sustainability in an organization is the health status of the work force. Company decisions can impact employee health and well-being for better or for worse. Those decisions can include:

  • Provision of Health Insurance: While approximately half the US population today receives health insurance through their employer, evidence shows that the amount employees are paying for their coverage has increased, and the number of employers offering it is on the decline.
  • The Effects of Layoffs: Layoffs are not only harmful to the physical and mental health of those laid off, but also to those who survive them. Negative behavioural changes in the general workforce included increased smoking and twice the rate of absence from work because of sickness.
  • Work Hours and Work-Family Conflict: There is an extensive body of evidence connecting work hours to poor employee health outcomes, such as hypertension. Long hours also increase the likelihood of conflicts between work and family responsibilities.
  • Stress and the Consequences of Job Design: Where people have little control over their job design, and face high job demands, increased stress is evidenced. There is also research suggesting that the higher someone’s rank in the bureaucracy, the lower that person’s risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Inequality: There have been various studies on the effect of inequality on health. Virtually all diseases follow a status gradient, and there is an effect of income inequality on the average health status of a population.

One of the reasons ‘human sustainability’ has received less emphasis than environmental sustainability is that the consequences are so much more visible. We notice the results of organizational action on the physical environment. “You can see the ice bergs melting, polar bears stranded, forests cut down…” says Pfeffer. On the other hand, reduced life expectancy and poorer physical and mental health are often hidden from view.

Business Application

Concerns about protecting an organization’s human resources should be just as important as concerns for protecting natural resources. Though there may be some short-term savings as a result of not providing health insurance, laying people off, paying inadequate wages, etc., in the long run there will be extra costs of increased physical and psychological illness that fall on the broader health system.

Just as “green” companies enjoy reputational benefits, companies with better records of human sustainability will enjoy similar benefits too, including:

  • Attracting and retaining employees; and
  • Building a reputation that could attract additional consumer demand.

Just as protecting the surrounding environment is the intelligent thing for an organisation to do to ensure its long-term future, so too is protecting its surrounding human society.

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Idea conceived

  • 2010

Idea posted

  • January 2013

DOI number



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