USC’s 2014 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award: Q & A with John Gaspari

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John Gaspari speaks on psychological health in the workplace.  Photo Credit: Larry Canner Photography. Photos Courtesy of the American Psychological Association. Used with permission.

John Gaspari speaks on psychological health in the workplace. Photo Credit: Larry Canner Photography. Photos Courtesy of the American Psychological Association. Used with permission.

As a National Winner of the 2014 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award, USC had the honor of sending representatives to Washington, D.C. to accept the award from the American Psychological Association. While receiving this award on USC’s behalf, John Gaspari, Executive Director of the USC Center for Work and Family Life, was interviewed about positive work environments, the benefits of psychologically healthy practices in organizations, and the significance of this award to USC.

1.  Why is this award a significant achievement for your organization?

JG: At the end of the day, I think organizations are just social contexts.  And in these contexts, I think that the best work is done in and through relationships. This award not only recognizes USC’s good work in supporting the health and well-being of its faculty and staff, but serves as an important focal point for ensuring the continued integration of business imperatives with humane and enlightened business practices.

2.  Do you feel that your efforts to create a positive work environment give you a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining better employees?  If so, how?

JG: Our President, Max Nikias, often speaks of USC’s ascendency in the academic ranks.  Together, we are building one of the great academic research organizations in the world. But organizations like ours are intensely human endeavors.  Focusing on psychological and social health is not extraneous to our goals, but rather, it enables them!  Attracting and retaining the best and brightest scholars, researchers, students and staff is an essential part of this strategy.

3.   Are the results of creating psychologically healthy practices worth the effort?

JG: I really can’t think of anyone at USC who doesn’t rely on someone else to get their work done. If, as modern neuroscience now tells us, that performance, productivity and happiness are nurtured and amplified in emotionally positive environments, then our efforts are not only worth it, but are critical to our success in differentiating ourselves in the marketplace.

Personally, I believe the point of this life is to “leave the place better than the way I found it”.  My staff and I touch people’s lives every day in ways we may not even be aware of.  USC has actively supported this endeavor as part of its business practices for nearly 35 years.  I think this award is a fitting recognition of that steadfast and enduring support of its people.

4.   What type of changes have you seen in your employees as a result of putting psychologically healthy workplace practices into place?

JG: People flourish in environments that provide adequate amounts of opportunity and challenge, but also ones that allow workers to feel safe, valued and supported.  While it is not likely that we will eliminate deleterious stress and incivility from the workplace anytime soon, we have seen significant reparative and protective effects in our employees, through the implementation and institutionalization of various psychologically healthy programs, polices and practices.  Our quality data and the direct feedback we receive quantify this.

5.   What type of changes have you seen in your organization as a result of putting psychologically healthy workplace practices into place?

JG:  USC has been in existence for over 130 years.  As such, our Trojan Family culture is tightly woven into our academic and business fabric. I think it’s difficult to unravel that fine weave and to be able to point to one factor contributing to our phenomenal growth and success.  Suffice it to say, though, that the myriad programs, practices and policies which support the psychological and physical health and well-being of our faculty and staff are as intentional as they are integral in contributing to our growing preeminence as a world-class academic research institution.

6.  Describe your organization’s efforts to create a positive work experience for employees and the results of those efforts?

JG: The list of USC’s efforts in this regard is long and varied from our generous medical and mental health care benefits to our on-site fitness centers, child-care facilities and our many wellness offerings, to the education we regularly do with supervisors and managers to help them better manage their diverse work forces, to the campus beautification and safety improvements that our President has actively pursued.  I think the results speak for themselves.  Our employee turnover rate is very low, and we were one of the few employers in Los Angeles doing significant hiring during the economic downturn over the last few years.

USC is an extremely complex, multifaceted and diverse enterprise.  My staff and I have the chance to sit on a number of standing committees across the University which actively work to create and sustain positive work environments.  One example is in our hospitals.  They have weekly manager meetings where positive cultural elements are carefully and deliberately nurtured, resourced and reinforced.  And it doesn’t stop there.  Each manager holds employee “huddles” with staff to enliven these “pro-social” practices every day, on every shift!

7.   How has what you’ve done to create a psychologically healthy workplace helped your organization be resilient and successful?

JG: Stress can motivate and impel people towards excellence.  But it can also overwhelm, debilitate and degrade performance and productivity.   We know that you can’t hold people to high expectations without providing them with appropriate resources to succeed.   USC understands that those resources include a person’s ability to cope with stress and to be able to skillfully manage and renew their energy.    So, you have to put things into people if you expect to get something out of them. And sometimes that means giving them a fish and other times it’s teaching them how to catch fish on their own.  The art is in deciding which approach to employ, at what point.  But, either way, you still need to eat to thrive!

8.  What’s next for your organization in terms of creating an even better work environment?

JG: A couple of things are exciting me right now.  One is our growing use of professional coaching frames to help those at USC go beyond their already high performance as well as to help faculty and staff effectively accommodate to new roles that they may be taking on as they progress in their careers.  In this context, we are getting the chance to assist people who may have never presented for traditional workplace behavioral health services, like counseling.   I think this really has great potential to influence the University’s workforce and outcomes in a powerful way.

Another area that has been generating a lot of interest and attention has to do with the use of mindfulness practices to both assist our faculty and staff cope with and reduce stress, as well as to impact the way people do their work.  Our employees, like those elsewhere, are increasingly impinged upon by often having more work to do with fewer resources.  This leads to the phenomenon of “multitasking” or what might more appropriately be called “many tasking”.  Either way, this phenomenon is having an impact on many people’s performance, well-being and satisfaction. Maybe we can’t influence how much work people have to do, but perhaps we can help them approach their work in ways that may afford them and the organization with less stress and greater productivity and enjoyment.

We are also involved in a new, multidisciplinary collaboration on campus called “The Mindful University”.  The idea is to train people throughout the University in using mindfulness practices and principles, and in how to employ these approaches in the various work groups across campus.  This initiative has Senior Management support and is being led by our Dean of Religious Life.

CWFL staff proudly accept the award. Photo Credit: Larry Canner Photography. Photos Courtesy of the American Psychological Association. Used with permission.
CWFL staff proudly accept the award.
Photo Credit: Larry Canner Photography. Photos Courtesy of the American Psychological Association. Used with permission.

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