Wellness in the Workplace: Building a More Productive Institution

May 15th, 2003 | By | Category: 14-4: Cultural Resilience, Features
By Cheryl Crazy Bull, with contributions by Alex Prue, Sr.

"Indians" by Peggy Deam (Suquamish), acrylic on canvas. Photo by Walter BigBee. Courtesy of the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum Cat#: SUQ-10. To contact the artist, email <pdeam@suquamish.nsn.us>

While considerable attention has been paid to the personal health and wellness of individuals in our American Indian communities during the last 10-15 years, there has been less attention to the health of our organizations. If we consider the following fictional yet familiar scenarios, we can see the need for solutions matched to our socio-economic and cultural environments. Healing and wellness strategies — grounded in strong cultural content — contribute to the productivity of people in tribal organizations, leading to greater focus on fulfilling our institutional missions.

  • It is 10 a.m., and Maria’s daughter just called in sick for her mother again. Maria was supposed to be at work by eight. It is the fourth time in a row that Maria has missed work on the Friday after payday. When her supervisor brought it up, Maria started crying.
  • Although Jim is one of the hardest workers in the housing maintenance department, he frequently has to leave work for his kids’ WIC appointments or other personal business. He might miss four to eight hours of work each week. Jim says his family depends on him because he has the only reliable car.
  • The staff of the registrar’s office is angry because their supervisor is using a work plan with goals and objectives for their evaluations. They feel they don’t need a “new” registrar telling them how to do their work. The registrar discovered many student records weren’t up to date, and the staff often spent hours on the computer or visiting.

Problems like these can be found in any workplace. Native people, however, bring special issues. The majority of the staff in tribal organizations comes from environments with a tremendous amount of poverty, persistent oppression, and political instability. These conditions at home sometimes make the staff negative and unproductive when they arrive at work, as described above. As a result, organizations often don’t function effectively; employees are unhappy; and the customers of the organization, be they students, clients, or the public, are frequently dissatisfied.

Environmental Pressures and Their Symptoms

Our Native communities, urban or rural, deal with incredible pressures. We suffer from an inordinate amount of loss and death. The grief never seems to go away. Many members of our extended families live with violence, chronic health problems, and broken families. We’re learning more all the time about historical grief and post-traumatic stress and their impact on the personal health of individuals, families, and communities.

Somewhere in our history as workers in organizations, we have been given permission to bring those issues into our daily performance as employees. As a result, our organizations lose productivity and don’t develop. When our focus shifts from the mission to maintaining fragile employees, organizations become less efficient and less effective.

When you add the administrative and financial pressures that occur with any organization, the impacts can be traumatic. When leadership fails to provide structure and appropriate expectations, staff members subject one another to unkind and even abusive acts. If leadership fails to communicate and share decision-making, it creates tension and behaviors that close staff off from their co-workers and their constituents.

Cultural Strengths

To balance the pressures of our dysfunctional work environments, we only need to look as far as the cultural values and practices of our communities. They can form the foundation of our healing strategies.

Healing strategies in the workplace should create an environment of respect, communication, and support. Changing attitudes and behavior is more important than developing new policies and procedures. In our traditional cultures, values such as industriousness and specialization served as the basis for economic and social wealth. Today, we have to translate traditional productivity values into contemporary paid work values. We used to be industrious in order to ensure enough food, clothing, and shelter both for our survival and to share with others. We must still be industrious.

Most traditional tribal societies wanted their people to lead healthy, respectful lifestyles with boundaries and expectations of relationships, responsibilities, and interactions. Without boundaries and expectations, we could not have survived the close living arrangements or the often-dangerous conditions. We respected

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