This blog post is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center.
A developers’ inside joke project “996.icu”, referring to their excessive work schedule from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week, potentially sending IT workers to intensive care units, sparked a nationwide heated discussion in China on organizational climate, employee engagement, and employee well-being, among other things. As a leader in China’s tech industry, Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, weighed in and responded that such a 996 schedule is “a huge blessing” and “an honor” to workers (Kuo, 2019).
Situated in this context, I hope to discuss a couple of topics for research and practice in employee/internal communication, one of the fastest-growing specialties in public relations in recent years. First, what may public relations researchers and practitioners consider as outcomes of internal communication? Currently, in both research and trade publications, we’ve focused on organization-employee relationships, employee engagement, employee voice, turnover intention, citizenship behavior, and so on, all of which presumably contribute to organizational effectiveness. In like manner, the aforementioned organizational climate that values long work hours (996 schedule) and competition reflect an underlying conviction that longer work hours equal better productivity and performance. Organizations also tend to blur the line between employee engagement and employee workaholism to justify the obsession over productivity. But what about employees’ mental health and well-being? A 2017 report authored by Mental Health America warned that employment-related mental health problems resulted in 500 billion dollars of productivity losses for U.S. companies. Stressed-out workers reported high rates of absenteeism. Some (34% surveyed workers) even resorted to unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking or crying regularly (Mental Health America, 2017).
A deeper understanding of employees’ lived experiences, beyond performance-related outcomes, as employees navigate different demands on the job, may reposition our view on organizational effectiveness and possibly shift our focus to “thoughtful work” (Kernanhan, 2018) and organizational learning. For example, in a recent study, Dr. Jiang and I examined employees’ work-life enrichment as an outcome of a supportive organizational environment, through a national membership survey of the Public Relations Society of America (Jiang & Shen, 2018). We found that employees with a supportive work environment developed more trust towards their employers, both of which bring about high work-life enrichment. These employees used their work skills in life, benefited emotionally from work, and felt more confident, fulfilled and secure as a result. The study suggests that one’s work is not necessarily an enemy, pulling them away from having a life; rather, work can be an ally, enriching workers’ life.
Similarly, a real-life success story of “thoughtful work” at Hotwire demonstrated a flipped perspective of organizational effectiveness. The travel booking company Hotwire did away the traditional 9-6 work schedule, allowing employees to work from anywhere anytime they wanted as long as results were delivered. This results-only new practice, coupled with more team-building communication tools, made employees markedly happier, more connected, and more productive and loyal.
To conclude, organizations may consider moving beyond the conventional view of performance and productivity and start thinking about workers’ happiness, well-being, learning, and work-life enrichment. Such a transition is vital to building a learning organization. Learning organizations made up of genuinely engaged and happy employees will be able to respond quickly to the unpredictable and fast-changing social, economic, and cultural environment (Garvin, Edmondson, & Gino, 2008).
Jiang, H., & Shen, H. (2018). Supportive organizational environment, work-life enrichment, trust and turnover intention: A national survey of PRSA membership. Public Relations Review, 44(5), 681–689.
Garvin, D. A., Edmondson, A. C., & Gino, F. (2008). Is yours a learning organization? Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2008/03/is-yours-a-learning-organization
Kernahan, H. (2018). Forward thinking: Understanding “thoughtful work.” Retrieved from http://apps.prsa.org/StrategiesTactics/Articles/view/12406/1164/Forward_Thinking_Understanding_Thoughtful_Work?spMailingID=26417057&spUserID=MzM4NTg1MTIxMDYS1&spJobID=1463045684&spReportId=MTQ2MzA0NTY4NAS2#.XM2l8C-ZNZI
Kuo, L. (2019). Working 9 to 9: Chinese tech workers push back against long hours. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/15/china-tech-employees-push-back-against-long-hours-996-alibaba-huawei
Mental Health America. (2017). Mind the workplace. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/sites/default/files/Mind%20the%20Workplace%20-%20MHA%20Workplace%20Health%20Survey%202017%20FINAL.PDF
Hongmei Shen, Ph.D., APR, is a professor in public relations at the School of Journalism & Media Studies, San Diego State University; Follow Professor Shen on Twitter @profshen