What can a committee do to create a respectful and trusting workplace?

Joanne K. Olson and Joanne Profetto-McGrath | 03/08/2017

A lot. The numbers are in, and this Canadian program is working.

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A healthy workplace is vital to the recruitment and retention of faculty, staff, and students and to the success of any academic setting. We believe, as do others, that “psychologically unhealthy work environments lead to higher levels of absenteeism, sick-leave usage, short- and long-term disability claims and turnover (Cavanaugh, 2014, p. 31).

Joanne OlsonWe also know that when incivility occurs in academic settings, it can have “lasting and devastating effects on individuals and organizations, including low morale, high turnover, increased absenteeism, isolation and alienation, diminished quality of work, and increased illness and health issues” (Clark, 2013, p. 98). Some have suggested that schools of nursing especially need to be places optimism and confidence are developed in future nursing leaders because many current members of the academy are nearing the end of their careers.

New academic nurse leaders seek places of employment that are supportive, enjoyable, and conducive to career development (Fontaine, Koh, & Carroll, 2012). One way to improve the workplace within academic nursing settings is to establish a committee that collaborates with faculty members, staff, and students to foster a rewarding and strong work environment. Further research is needed to determine best practices, but in the paragraphs that follow, we describe efforts at the University of Alberta Faculty of Nursing to create an effective healthy-workplace committee and the results obtained thus far. These initiatives coincided with the beginning of the dean’s new five-year term and a strategic plan that includes a healthy workplace as one of its priorities.

The committee
Joanne Profetto-McGrathA successful committee depends on broad representation. The Healthy Workplace Committee established for the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, includes 16 or more members from faculty, staff, and student groups. The terms of reference indicate how members are selected or elected, to whom the committee reports (the dean), how often the committee meets (several times each year), and the overall purpose of the committee—which is to identify workplace strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and concerns and to advise the dean on strategies to promote a healthy and safe work experience for staff and students.

The dean’s office provides financial resources for the committee’s work. To provide guidance for the committee, documents about healthy workplace environments were gathered from across the university, from the literature, and from agencies in our province (Alberta) and at the federal level (i.e., Mental Health Commission of Canada).

Establishing a baseline
To collect baseline information about various aspects of the work environment, the committee first conducted an anonymous online survey. The quantitative section of the survey included 35 questions. Using a scale that ranged from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” the assessment measured a variety of items, including 1) levels of job satisfaction, 2) effectiveness of communication by the leadership team, 3) respect during interactions, 4) exposure to hostility, isolation, or conflict, and 5) balance between family and work life.

Acknowledge posterFor the qualitative aspect of the survey, respondents were asked questions such as: What do you value about the Faculty of Nursing workplace environment? What currently contributes to a healthy workplace for you? If the Faculty could work on two key areas to enhance your work environment, what would you recommend as top priorities? Data from the survey revealed that faculty members value positive working relationships with their colleagues and regard respect and trust as important values.

Based on information revealed by the survey, the Healthy Workplace Committee began its work by focusing on establishing behavior-related policies and identifying practices that support a respectful and trusting workplace. Two years later, a follow-up survey was conducted to determine the effectiveness of those policies and practices.

The program
After identifying practices that foster respectful communication and inspire trust, the committee conducted a poster campaign to raise faculty and staff awareness. Using direct quotes from faculty and staff members, we created posters, placed strategically around the Faculty of Nursing, that served to remind observers of what is important in creating a healthy workplace.

Being Positive posterGraham S. Lowe, PhD, professor emeritus, University of Alberta Faculty of Business, and author of Creating Healthy Organizations: How Vibrant Workplaces Inspire Employees to Achieve Sustainable Success, conducted a full-day workshop for all faculty and staff. Committee members reviewed the literature on selected topics, including trust in the workplace. Scholarly articles were assigned and, when reporting on what they had read, committee members addressed the following questions: What is meant by trust? How is trust built? What strategies can be utilized to grow/support/enhance trust?

After seeking to better understand what trust in the workplace is and how it is fostered, we sought further wisdom by contracting with an expert to work with groups of faculty and staff on issues related to trust.

Other committee activities completed during this phase included creating a website for faculty and staff to learn the latest information about healthy workplaces and the committee’s initiatives and also inviting guests—including Louise Bradley, president and CEO, Mental Health Commission of Canada—to meet with the committee. In addition, the committee provided exhibits at faculty conference events and presented at conferences to share activities and lessons learned.

The results
Respect posterA second survey conducted two years after the healthy workplace initiative was launched reveals encouraging results. ”Stressful days at work” dropped from 37 percent to 33 percent and “difficult to handle workload” from 11.5 percent to 8.9 percent. Responses reporting exposure to isolation, hostility, and unconstructive conflict decreased from 50 percent to 42 percent while the belief that leadership withholds information from employees declined from 63.1 percent to 59.8 percent. Respondents reported an increase in clarity about what was expected in job performance (69.2 percent to 76.8 percent); an increase in observed genuine commitment to excellence (61.5 percent to 65.2 percent); increased satisfaction with decision-making processes (42.3 percent to 45.5 percent); increased feelings of trust toward the organization (50 percent to 56.3 percent); and increased overall satisfaction with the organization (63.8 percent to 68.8 percent).

Nurses working on committee

The work is ongoing, and the Healthy Workplace Committee has gone from ad hoc status to permanent standing with faculty, staff, and student body representatives. In addition, members of the committee now link with the university’s wellness program, which includes faculty, staff, and students. We look forward to adding a column on healthy workplace issues to our weekly faculty newsletter, engaging a coach to further assist in developing trust in the workplace, and continuing to explore ways to inaugurate mental-health initiatives in the workplace.

Building a healthy workplace is a continuous process that benefits from a structured approach as well as periodic measurements to determine if efforts are effective. With that in mind, we recognize the continuing need for research that identifies the most effective processes for developing healthy academic workplaces and seeks ways to measure both short- and long-term outcomes.

Editor’s note: Joanne Olson and Joanne Profetto-McGrath will be presenting sessions titled “Working together to create a respectful, trusting, and healthy workplace for faculty, staff, and students” at the upcoming Creating Healthy Work Environments conference. Slated for 17-19 March 2017 at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, the conference theme is “Building a Healthy Workplace: Best Practices in Clinical and Academic Settings.”

Joanne K. Olson, PhD, RN, FAAN, professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, has served for the past four years as director, Quality Assurance and Enhancement and as a member of the Healthy Workplace Committee. Joanne Profetto-McGrath, PhD, RN, professor and vice dean in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta, chairs the Healthy Workplace Committee.

Cavanaugh, S. (2014). Improving psychological health in the workplace. The Canadian Nurse, 10(3), 31-33.

Clark, C. (2013). National study on faculty-to-faculty incivility: Strategies to foster collegiality and civility. Nurse Educator, 38(3), 98-102.

Fontaine, D., Koh, E., & Carroll, T. (2012). Promoting a healthy workplace for nursing faculty and staff. Nursing Clinics of North America, 47(4), 557-566.

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