Customization is important for health

Energetic employees perform better, which is why paying attention to healthy(er) work pays off. But how do we best approach this? Occupational and organizational psychologist Irma van Steijn sees that companies more often have to deal with employees who are balancing on the edge of failure. 'The impact of corona and the measures taken teaches us how important customization is for health.' Irma van Steijn shares her expertise and insights on health and work. She is an occupational and organizational psychologist (among others) at Maarsingh & van Steijn, a practice where more than thirty professionals offer diverse psychological expertise to companies and individuals throughout the Northern Netherlands.

One-size-fits-all? Entrepreneurs know better than anyone that it rarely works that way with products and services. Sure, we standardize where we can, but offer customization where it's needed. Exactly that, according to Irma, is also essential in healthy working. 'We have seen how one employee thrives on working from home, while another only gets anything done in the office,' she says. 'The more flexible the options, the better employees thrive because they can choose what suits their situation and needs. In smaller companies, that flexibility is easier to achieve. The larger a company, the tighter the policies and rules often are. Understandable, but can have consequences for employee health.'

Sickness of angry

'Both employers and employees still don't realize enough that you can get sick from powerlessness and frustration at work,' notes the psychologist. 'Structural negative stress - apart from rising blood pressure or palpitations - can easily lead to unhealthy behavior patterns, such as excessive eating, smoking or drinking. With all its consequences. Stress symptoms are also caused by what I call the disease of angry: simmering conflicts created by misunderstandings in communication. These, too, have increased since corona, as we communicate more remotely. Through email or app and even in online meetings, you miss the body language, as well as the social lubrication that flows more easily in live contacts. So assumptions grow that turn out not to be correct at all, with all the frustrations and complaints of tension that result.'

Learning to communicate

Is it possible to get a grip on that - often subcutaneous - disease of anger? 'Skillful communication,' advises Irma. 'It seems such an open door, but precisely because of the higher pressure in this day and age, communication within companies really requires renewed attention. Everyone thinks something and we all want to be heard and seen. And yes, that takes time and effort, but it pays off. Especially in the long run. The point is that people usually don't raise the alarm until they literally drop out. While a whole process precedes that, especially in the case of tension complaints or burnout. The challenge for entrepreneurs is to be aware of these processes and to remain curious and open in conversation with their employees. Then you tackle misunderstandings sooner and it is easier to stay focused on the common interests at work.'

It seems like such an open door, but precisely because of the higher pressure in this day and age, communication within companies really requires renewed attention.
Irma van Steijn, occupational and organizational psychologist

Focus on output

Skillful communication preferably starts in good times, according to the psychologist, to gain insight at the individual and team level into what people need to perform well structurally. 'There is no standard recipe for vital employees. The factors that make someone thrive are very personal. It is important to take that seriously with each other,' Irma emphasizes. 'Even if that means stretching working hours, or a more flexible attitude around working from home. That can be a challenge for entrepreneurs who like to maintain control. Of course, sometimes frameworks are necessary or even mandatory, but look mainly at what works well in practice. And focus on output, because that is what your business is ultimately about: accurate performance and satisfied customers. Therefore, leave as much as possible to the employees how they can best achieve this.

More productive and successful

Irma also points out the benefits of prevention. Health is often only an issue when problems arise, while our happiness at work and therefore also the economy would benefit if we made more use of psychological expertise. Think for example: designing the environment so that you are positively stimulated, understanding your best work rhythm and knowing how stress and focus work for you. With that kind of knowledge and experience, everyone can work more healthily, productively and successfully. We see the positive effects when people examine their work patterns and lifestyle and dare to experiment. And, if desired, we make it more concrete by, for example, monitoring stress for a number of days. Then you get a clear picture of where the positive and negative stress moments are. That insight helps to optimize work patterns and the work environment.

Feel the difference

'Much can be done to increase vitality, but realize that motivation is an essential key to change,' the psychologist concludes. 'And as an employer, you can at most influence that motivation by encouraging and facilitating healthier work. If you impose too much, people will dig in their heels or frustration will ensue. Example behavior is important and practical incentives help, such as offering a healthy lunch at work or organizing walking meetings. The basis remains: open communication and more flexibility in how and where people do their work. A nice challenge here is to experiment with behavior patterns: try a different daily schedule, take the stairs more often, go to bed earlier or feel the difference between a workplace with more peace and quiet or more stimuli. Think of it as a small pilot for yourself, to see what it brings. Small changes can already make a big difference.'

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