Why treating people well could save lives

Organisations stand to gain a financial return from shifting to more humane management, but more importantly it could save lives

I was astonished to see in the news that France Télécom (now Orange) is being sued because of 19 staff suicides during organisational restructuring in 2006. Former executives of this company are being accused of ‘moral harassment’, deliberately creating a culture of anxiety among staff and attempting to push some out by isolating, intimidating and demoting them, or transferring them away from their families.

In addition to the suicides, 12 members of staff attempted suicide and a further eight were diagnosed with severe depression or were signed off for related illnesses. According to the record of a directors’ meeting in October 2006, published in Le Parisien, Didier Lombard, former CEO of France Télécom told senior managers: “I’ll get them out one way or another; through the door or through the window.”

In Jeffery Pfeffer’s book Dying for a Paycheck, he scrutinises leadership and management practices, particularly in America, where he says such practices are destroying individual and organisational health.

He states that: “In total, workplace environments in the United States may be responsible for 120,000-excess deaths per year. That makes workplaces the fifth leading cause of death in America. Organisations of all kinds regularly permit, if not encourage, management practices that literally sicken and kill their employees, and these same employers also suffer because toxic management practices and unhealthy workplaces do not improve organisational profitability or performance.”

Even more shockingly, his research has discovered that in China alone over one million people die per year because of work-induced stress-related illnesses.

According to the American Institute of Stress, US businesses lose up to $300 billion each year as a result of workplace stress; stress causes around one million workers to miss work every day; depression leads to $51 billion in costs due to absenteeism and $26 billion in treatment costs; and work-related stress results in $190 billion in healthcare costs yearly.

Different sources of data paint a similar picture: work related stress leads to the loss of precious human lives. We need to take action to improve this shocking reality of modern workplaces.

So, what can be done to ensure leadership and management practices in companies across the globe, and of all sizes, don’t spiral out of control to the point of severely impacting employees’ health and wellbeing?

Research shows that organisations can secure superior financial returns through humanising organisations with highly purposeful and engaged staff, displaying social and environmental responsibility. Organisations can do well by doing good.

I have had the privilege of interviewing 58 business leaders at the forefront of this change, for my latest book Humane Capital. One of the questions I asked interviewees when I did interviews for Humane Capital was to estimate the value, or the price tag of shifting from old ways of working based on command and control to new, more humane ways, based on people, purpose and collaboration.

Many business leaders who participated in my Humane Capital research have seen a financial return from the shift, running into millions of pounds, or even a 10% increase in company value or a 10-25% increase in turnover. In some cases, it has made the difference between survival and bankruptcy.

More importantly, it has transformed the quality of life for those people who now work for an organisation that has a purpose they believe in, and whose leaders encourage and coach them to make the most out of their abilities. Ultimately, treating people well could save lives and that is priceless.

Vlatka Hlupic is professor of leadership and organisational transformation at Hult Ashridge Executive Education and CEO of The Management Shift Consulting