35. Organizations and Health and Safety
Chapter Editor: Gunnela Westlander
Psychosocial Factors and Organizational Management
Point to a thumbnail to see figure caption, click to see figure in article context.
The official in the company’s EDP Department and the claims adjuster in the Occupational Injury Department were involved in intensive collaboration for a period of about six months. They had never previously had the opportunity to work together and did not know each other well. The EDP specialist is the head of his department, which forms a part of the company’s central financial administration, positioned immediately below head-office management. The occupational-injury claims adjuster is head of one of the company’s business units, the Occupational Injury Department, which is geographically located in another part of the town.
The EDP Department has the duty, on a continuous basis, to rationalize and redesign the forms used by the company, so that the registration of documents and correspondence within the company’s various business units is simplified and made as effective as possible.
The Occupational Injury Department has the task of handling the occupational-injury claims of its policyholders (circle of clients) in a scrupulous and accurate manner, so that clients feel that they are correctly treated. The EDP Department has a rationalizing function in the company, whereas the Occupational Injury Department has a client-oriented function in a specialized area of insurance business.
The occupational-injury claims adjuster has daily contacts with other officials in his own work group and also with members of other work groups within the Occupational Injury Department. These contacts are made primarily to discuss matters concerning occupational injuries that will enable the maintenance of an intra-departmental consensus on the guiding principles for claims adjustment. The Occupational Injury Department lives in a world of its own within the company, and has very few direct contacts beyond those with its own circle of clients. Contact with the rest of the company is extremely limited.
The EDP Department is a part of the company’s central financial-control system. The head of department has brief but regular contacts with all parts of the company, in fact more with these parts than with the personnel of parallel departments in central finance.
The primary reason why collaboration between the EDP official and the occupational-injury claims adjuster arose is that the EDP Department received instructions from management to so design its rationalization activities that insurance officials in the business units were able to increase their productivity, and thereby provide scope to accommodate a wider circle of clients (in part by offering new kinds of policies/insurance packages). The occupational-injury claims adjuster reacts with great hesitation to the EDP official’s proposal when the latter indicates management’s motive. The adjuster wants to achieve his own goal and fulfil his own function in the company, namely that of satisfying the needs of policy holders for the scrupulous administration of matters concerned with occupational injuries. He considers that this goal is incompatible with a further increase in productivity.
The interaction between the official from the EDP Department and the occupational-injury claims adjuster is complicated by factors concerned with their different locations within the organization, their different kinds of obligations and their differing “points of view” on activities in general. In other words, the two officials have to approach problems (in this case the problems of profitability) from different perspectives.
What we have discovered is the existence of conflicting goals and forces, which are built into an organizational design for activities, and which make up a platform for interaction between two officials.
The following organizational change was studied in one of the major Swedish engineering companies. Here we find a good example of where the main objective was to improve/increase the level of health at work. The locality is a large industry in a rural area where it is impossible for trained secretaries to easily find other jobs. In practice, staff are forced to accept what this major concern can offer if they want to carry on with their special working skills. Some 50 women worked there as secretaries. Most of them were married to men also employed by the company and so were doubly bound to whatever work the area could offer. The common problems for the secretaries were the duties and salary scales. The company offered no opportunities for job development, training or promotion, and the work of the secretaries in the main consisted of simple routine duties, and so some of them were regarded as over-qualified. Management saw secretarial positions as “the end of the line”, a staff policy which created great irritation among the secretaries. The work changes which arose out of this discontent went on for four years.
The intention was to obtain professional vocational development within the framework of secretarial employment; the problem was that there was no demand for this either from management or other staff categories. So the 50 secretaries had to carry through their objectives in the face of strong opposition. Here is a summary of how their efforts to bring about change progressed step by step.
The problem was first raised at a local meeting of the white-collar union. One of the secretaries was present. She pointed out that most of her colleagues did work which seemed to fall into other occupational classifications. The matter was noted but no action was taken. Some secretaries then approached the union’s local committee and asked the chair to arrange a meeting with a number of their executives. This was done. Salary scales and vocational development for the secretaries was discussed. But interest declined after the meeting.
An internal consultant took over the problem and tried, in vain, to make the union take responsibility for some follow-up. A second internal consultant, an expert in job evaluation, became involved. Together with a firm of consultants, a survey was carried out among the secretaries. The result showed that dissatisfaction was widespread.
At the request of the union and management, the consultants arranged a number of conferences for the secretaries and their immediate superiors.
The intention here was to clarify for management what their working conditions were in practice and what, in more explicit form, their wishes for vocational development were, all within the framework of their secretarial duties. A great deal of hard work was done at these conferences. Prejudices and oppositional attitudes were ventilated. A list of problems was drawn up. A total of 45 managers and 53 secretaries participated. After this problem analysis stage was completed, the consultants made it clear that their contribution was over.
The secretaries decided to take on the job themselves in the phase which now followed. Among possible solutions, they selected a business-economic strategy-this with the assumption that it would increase managerial interest in the matter. They divided themselves into small, specialist working groups (technology, ergonomy, purchasing and so on). Each group took upon itself to produce proposals to improve secretarial work. They also worked out a cost calculation for each proposal.
During the next few years 22 working groups were formed to solve varied problems. Six working groups were in operation 4 years after the start. From the names of these groups we can see where interest for effectiveness lay: technology in the future, office materials, travel service, copy-saving measures, training, sensitivity training. They were more and more successful in gaining attention for their proposals, many of which were carried through.
A number of rationalization measures arose from the studies made by the groups. Now nobody does any unnecessary work. Manuscripts are accepted as working material. Secretaries perform copy typing only where necessary. An office computer system has been procured. The secretarial group lost 10 staff by attrition (usually by moving to another part of the country.) The secretaries started to be consulted by the company’s recruitment department when a vacant secretarial post was to be filled. They were asked to propose reorganizations so that new staff would not be needed. Up to now, 19 secretaries have been promoted to a higher job classification with higher salaries as their work became more skilled. Management is satisfied with the organizational changes which have taken place.
The original idea of the project was to cut out unnecessary and unqualified items from secretarial work and add more qualified duties. This succeeded; at the same time a great deal of expensive duplication of work and long-winded working routines were discovered. After a while, the process could continue in other forms. It was integrated into the work of the staff department under the name RGSD (Reference Group for Secretarial Development).
For some while, this organizational change became known all over the country. A number of group members were invited to committees and conferences around the country to describe the project.
Psychosocial health consequences. These work changes were of immense importance for the secretaries personally. For most, it meant a greater consciousness of their vocational role and of the opportunities which existed to improve the secretarial function in the company. A team spirit grew up when they looked at problems common to them all. As a job collective they saw, step by step, the result of their tenacious work. Their higher qualifications came from their own efforts (Westlander 1991).
The term organization is often used in a broad sense, which is not so strange because the phenomenon of an “organization” has many aspects. It can be said that studying organizations makes up an entire problem area of its own, with no natural location within any specific academic discipline. Certainly the concept of organization has obtained a central position within what is called management science—which, in some countries, is a subject in its own right within the field of business studies. But in a number of other subject areas, among them occupational safety and health, there has also been reason to ponder why one is considering organizational theory and to determine which aspects of organization to embrace in research analyses.
The organization is not just of importance to company management, but is also of great significance for each person’s work situation, both in health terms and in relation to his or her short- and long-term opportunities for making an effective contribution to work. Thus, it is of key importance for specialists in the field of occupational safety and health to be acquainted with the theorizing, conceptualization and forms of thinking about social reality to which the terms organization and organizational development or change refer.
Organizational arrangements have consequences for social relationships that exist amongst the people who work in the organization. Organizational arrangements are conceived of and intended to achieve certain social relations at work. A multiplicity of studies on psychosocial aspects of working life have affirmed that the form of an organization “breeds” social relations. The choice between alternative organizational structures is governed by a variety of considerations, some of which have their origins in a particular approach to management and organizational coordination. One form can be based on the view that effective organizational management is achieved when specific social interactions between the organization’s members are enabled. The choice of the structural form in an organization is made on the basis of the way in which people are intended to be linked together to establish organizationally effective interdependent relations; or, as theorists of business administration tend to express the idea: “how the growth of critical combinations is facilitated”.
One of the prominent members of the “human relations school”, Rensis Likert (1961, 1967) has provided an enduring idea on how hierarchical “subsystems” in a complex organizational structure ideally should be linked together. Likert pointed to the importance of unity and solidarity among members of an organization. Here, the job supervisor/manager has a dual task:
Likert’s “linking pin model” is shown in figure 1. Likert employed the analogy of the family to characterize desirable social interaction between different work units, which he conceived as functioning as “organizational families”. He was convinced that the provision by management of scope and encouragement for the strengthening of personal relations between workers at different levels was a powerful means for increasing organizational effectiveness and uniting personnel behind the goals of the company. Likert’s model is an attempt to achieve “a regularity of practice” of some kind, which would further reinforce the organizational structure laid down by management. From around the beginning of the 1990s his model has acquired increasing relevance. Likert’s model may be regarded as an example of a recommended structure.
Figure 1. Likert’s linking pin model
One way of using the term organization is with the focus on the human beings’ competence; the organization in that sense is the total combination of competences and, if one wants to go a bit further, their synergetic effects. Another and opposite perspective places its focus on the coordination of people’s activities needed to fulfil a set of goals of a business. We can call that the “organizational arrangement” which is decided upon on an agreed basis. In this chapter on organizational theory the presentation has its point of departure in organizational arrangement, and the members or workers participating in this arrangement are looked at from an occupational health perspective.
Structure as a Basic Concept in Organizational Theory
Structure is a common term within organization theory, referring to the form of organizational arrangement intended to bring a goal effectiveness. Business activities in working life can be analysed from a structural perspective. The structural approach has for long been the most popular, and has contributed most—quantitatively speaking—to the knowledge we have on organizations. (At the same time, members of a younger generation of organization researchers have expressed a series of misgivings concerning the value of this approach (Alvesson 1989; Morgan 1986)).
When adopting a structural perspective it is taken more or less for granted that there exists an agreed order (structure) to the form in which a set of activities is carried out. On the basis of this fundamental assumption, the organizational issue posed becomes one of the specific appearance of this form. In how much detail and in which ways have the tasks of persons in different job positions been described in formally issued, official documents? What rules apply to people in managerial positions? Information on the organizational pattern, the body of regulations and specified relations is available in documents such as instructions for management and job descriptions.
A second issue raised is how activities are organized and patterned in practice: what regularities actually exist, and what is the nature of relations between people? Raising this question in itself implies that a complete correspondence between formally decreed and practised forms of activities should not be expected. There are several reasons for this. Naturally, not all phases of work can be covered by a prescribed body of rules. Also, defining operations as they should be carried out will often not be adequate to describe the actual activities of workers and their interaction with each other because:
In practical terms, it is probably impossible for the scope of any norms which are developed to describe adequately the normal routines that occur. Defined norms simply cannot encompass the full range of practice and relations between human beings. The adequacy of the norms will be dependent on the level of detail in which the official structure is expressed. It is interesting and important in the assessment of organizations and for any preventive programmes to establish the extent of the correspondence between the norms and the practices of organizational activities.
The extent of the contrast between norms and practices (objective and subjective definitions of organizational structure) is important as is the difference between the organizational structure that is perceived by an “investigator” and the individual organizational member’s image or perception of it. Not only is a lack of correspondence between the two of great intellectual interest, it can also constitute a handicap for the individual in the organization in that he or she may have far too inadequate a picture of the organization to be able to protect and/or promote his or her own interests.
Some Basic Structural Dimensions
There has been a long succession of ideas and principles concerning the management of organizations, each in turn striving for something new. Despite this, however, it remains the case that the official organizational structure generally stipulates a form of hierarchical order and a division of responsibilities.Thus, it specifies major aspects of vertical integration and functional responsibility or authorization.
Figure 2. The classical original organizational form
We encounter the idea of vertical influence most readily in its simplest, classical original form (see Figure 2). The organization comprises one superior and a number of subordinates, a number small enough for the superior to exercise direct control. The developed classical form (see figure 3) demonstrates how a complex organizational structure can be built up from small hierarchical systems (see figure 1). This common, extended form of the classical organization, however, does not necessarily specify the nature of horizontal interaction between people in non-management positions.
Figure 3. The extended classical form
An organizational structure mostly consists of managerial layers (i.e., a “triangular” structure, with a few or several layers descending from the apex), and there is almost always a more or less accentuated hierarchically ordered form of organization desired. The basic principle is that of “unity of command” (Alvesson 1989): a “scalar” chain of authority is created, and applied more or less strictly according to the nature of the organizational structure selected. There may be long vertical channels of influence, forcing personnel to cope with the inconveniences of lengthy chains of command and indirect paths of communication when they wish to reach a decision-maker. Or, when there are only a few management layers (i.e., the organizational structure is flat—see Figure 4), this indicates a preference on the part of top management to de-emphasize the supervisor-subordinate relationship. The distance between top management and employees is shorter, and lines of contact are more direct. At the same time, however, each manager will have a relatively large number of subordinates—in fact, sometimes so many that he or she cannot usually exercise direct control over personnel. Greater scope is thereby given for horizontal interaction, which becomes a necessity for operational effectiveness.
Figure 4. The flat organization
In a flat organizational structure, the norms for vertical influence are only crudely specified in a simple organizational chart. The chart thus has to be supplemented by instructions for managers and by detailed job instructions.
Hierarchical structures may be viewed as a normative means of control, which in turn may be characterized as offering minimum liability to members of the organization. Within this framework there is a more or less generously allocated amount of scope for individual influence and action, depending on what has been decided in relation to the decentralization of decision-making, delegation of tasks, temporary coordinating groups, and the structure of budgetary responsibilities. Where there is less generous scope for influence and action, there will be correspondingly smaller margin for error on the part of the individual. The degree of latitude can usually only be guessed at from the content of the official documents referred to.
In addition to the hierarchical order (vertical influence), the official organizational structure specifies some (normative) form of division of responsibility and thereby functional authority. It might be said that the art of leading an organization as a whole is largely a matter of structuring all its activities in such a way that the combination of different functions arrived at has the greatest conceivable external impact. The names of the different parts (the functions) of the structure specify, albeit only as an outline, how management has conceived the breakdown into various sections of activities and how these shall then be combined and accounted for. From this we can also trace the demands placed on managers’ functional authority.
Modifying the Organizational Structures
There are many variants on how an organization as a whole can be built up. One of the basic issues is how core activities (the production of goods or services) are to be combined with other necessary operational elements, including personnel management, information, administration, maintenance, marketing and so on. One alternative is to place major departments for administration, personnel, company finances and so on alongside production units (a functional or “staff” organization). Behind such an arrangement lies management’s interest in personnel, within their specialized areas, developing a broad range of skills so that they can provide production units with assistance and support, reduce the burden upon them and promote their development.
An alternative to “administration parallel” is to staff production units with people possessing the required specialized administrative skills. In this way cooperation across specialized administrative boundaries can be brought about, thus benefiting the production unit in question. Additional alternative structures are possible, based on ideas concerning functional combinations which would promote cooperative working within organizations. Often organizations are required to respond to change in the operating environment, and hence a change in structure occurs. The transition from one organizational structure to another can involve drastic changes in desired forms of interaction and cooperation. These need not affect everyone in the organization; often they are imperceptible to the occupiers of certain job positions. It is important to take the changes into account in any analysis of organizational structures.
Identifying types of existing structures has become a major research task for many organization theorists in the business administration field (see, for example, Mintzberg 1983; Miller and Mintzberg 1983), the idea being that it would be of benefit if researchers could recognize the nature of organizations and place them in easily identifiable categories. By contrast, other researchers have used empirical data (data based on observations of organizational structures) to demonstrate that limiting description to such strict typologies obscures the nuances of reality (Alvesson 1989). In their view, it is relevant to learn from the individual case rather than simply to generalize immediately to an existing typology. A researcher of occupational health should prefer the latter reality-based approach as it contributes to a better, more adequate understanding of the situational conditions in which the individual workers are involved.
Alongside its basic organizational structure (which specifies vertical influence and the functional distribution for core activities), an organization may also possess certain ad hoc structures, which may be set up for either a definite or indefinite time period. These are often called “parallel structures”. They can be instituted for a variety of reasons, such as to further reinforce the competitiveness of the company (primarily serve the company’s interests), as is the case with networking, or to strengthen the rights of employees (primarily serve the interests of employees), such as mechanisms for surveillance (e.g., health and safety committees).
As surveillance of the work environment has as its primary function to promote the safety interests of employees, it is frequently organized in a rather more permanent parallel structure. Such structures exist in many countries, often with operational procedures that are laid down by national legislation (see the chapter Labour Relations and Human Resources Management).
In modern corporate management, network is a term that has acquired a specialized usage. Creating a network means organizing circles of intermediate-level managers and key personnel from diverse parts of an organization for a specific purpose. The task of the network may be to promote development (e.g., that of secretarial positions throughout the company), provide training (e.g., personnel at all retail outlets), or effect rationalization (e.g., all the company’s internal order routines). Typically, a networking task involves improving corporate operations in some concrete respect, such that the entire company is permeated by the improvement.
Compared with Likert’s linking pin model, which aims to promote vertical as well as horizontal interaction within and between layers in the hierarchical structure, the point of a network is to tie people together in different constellations than those offered by the base structure (but, note, for no other reason than that of serving the interests of the company).
Networking is initiated by management to counter—but not dismantle—the established hierarchical structure (with its functional divisions) which has emerged as being far too sluggish in response to new demands from the environment. Creating a network can be a better option than embarking on an arduous process of changing or restructuring the entire organization. According to Charan (1991), the key to effective networking is that top management gets the network working and selects its members (who should be highly motivated, energetic and committed, quick and effective, and with an ability to easily disseminate information to other employees). Top management should also keep a watchful eye on continued activities within the network. In this sense, networking is a “top-down” approach. With the sanction of management and funds at its disposal, a network can become a powerful structure which cuts across the base organization.
One example of networking is the recent effort aimed at improving the general level of competence of operators which took place in a Volvo firm. Management initiated a network whose members could work out a system of tasks ordered according to the level of difficulty. A corresponding training programme guaranteed the workers a possibility of following a "career ladder" including a corresponding wage system. The members of the network were selected from among experienced employees from different parts of the plant and at different levels. Because the proposed system was perceived as an innovation, the collaboration in the network became highly motivating and the plan was realized in the shortest possible time.
Implications for Health and Safety
The occupational health specialist has much to gain by asking how much of the interaction between people in the organization rests on the basic organizational structure and how much on the parallel structures that have been set up. In which does the individual actively take part? What is demanded from the individual in terms of effort and loyalty? How does this affect encounters with and cooperation between colleagues, work mates, managers and other active participants in formal contexts?
To the occupational health specialist concerned with psychosocial issues it is important to be aware that there is always some person(s) (from outside or inside the organization) who has taken on or been allocated the task of designing the set of normative prescriptions for activities. These “organizational creators” do not act alone but are assisted within the organization by loyal supporters of the structure they create. Some of the supporters are active participants in the creative process who use and further develop the principles. Others are the representatives or “mouthpieces” of personnel, either collectively or of specific groups (see figure 5). Moreover, there is also a large group of personnel who can be characterized as administrators of the prescribed form of activities but who have no say in its design or the method of its implementation.
Figure 5. The organization of occupational safety - a parallel structure
By studying organizational change we adopt a process perspective. The concept organizational change covers everything from a change in the total macrostructure of a company to alterations in work allocation—coordination of activity in precisely defined smaller units; it may involve changes in administration or in production. In one or another way the issue is to rearrange the work-based relations between employees.
Organizational changes will have implications for the health and well-being of those in the organization. The most easily observed dimensions of health are in the psychosocial domain. We can state that organizational change is very demanding for many employees. It will be a positive challenge to many individuals, and periods of lassitude, tiredness and irritation are unavoidable. The important thing for those responsible for occupational health is to prevent such feelings of lassitude from becoming permanent and to turn them into something positive. Attention must be paid to the more enduring attitudes to job quality and the feedback one gets in the form of one’s own competence and personal development; the social satisfactions (of contacts, collaboration, “belongingness”, team spirit, cohesiveness) and finally the emotions (security, anxiety, stress and strain) deriving from these conditions. The success of an organizational change should be assessed by taking into consideration these aspects of job satisfaction.
A common misconception which may hinder the ability to respond positively to organizational change is that normative structures are just formalities which have no relevance to how people really act or how they perceive the state of affairs they encounter. People who are labouring under this misconception believe that what is important is “the order in practice”. They concentrate on how people actually act in “reality”. Sometimes this point of view may seem convincing, especially in the case of those organizations where structural change has not been implemented for a considerable period of time and where people have got used to the existing organizational system. Employees have become accustomed to an accepted, tried and tested order. In these situations, they do not reflect upon whether it is normative or just operates in practice, and do not care very much whether their own “image” of the organization corresponds with the official one.
On the other hand, it should also be noted that the normative descriptions may seem to provide a more accurate picture of an organization’s reality than is the case. Simply because such descriptions are documented in writing and have received an official stamp does not mean that they are an accurate representation of the organization in practice. Reality can differ greatly, as for example when normative organizational descriptions are so out of date as to have lost current relevance.
To optimize effectiveness in responding to change, one has to sort out carefully the norms and the practices of the organization undergoing change. That formally laid down norms for operations affect and intervene in interactions between people, first becomes apparent to many when they have personally witnessed or been drawn into structural change. Studying such changes requires a process perspective on the organization.
A process perspective includes questions of the type:
The point is to obtain an overall picture of how it is envisaged that workers shall relate to each other, the ways in which this happens in practice, and the nature of the state of tension between the official order and the order in practice.
The incompatibility between the description of organizations and their reality is one of the indications that there is no organizational model which is always “the best” for describing a reality. The structure selected as a model is an attempt (made with a greater or lesser degree of success) to adapt activities of the problems which management finds it most urgent to solve at a particular point in time when it is clear that an organization must undergo change.
The reason for effecting a transition from one structure to another may be the result of a variety of causes, such as changes in the skills of personnel available, the need for new systems of remuneration, or the requirement that the influence of a particular section of functions of the organization should be expanded—or contracted. One or several strategic motives can lie behind changes in the structure of an organization. Often the driving force behind change is simply that the need is so great, the goal has become one of organizational survival. Sometimes the issue is ease of survival and sometimes of survival itself. In some cases of structural change, employees are involved to only a limited extent, sometimes not at all. The consequences of change can be favourable for some, unfavourable for others. One occasionally encounters instances where organizational structures are changed primarily for the purpose of promoting employees’ occupational health and safety (Westlander 1991).
The Concept of Work Organization
Until now we have focused on the organization as a whole. We can also restrict our unit of analysis to the job content of the individual worker and the nature of his or her collaboration with colleagues. The most common term we find used for this is work organization. This too is a term which is employed in several disciplines and within various research approaches.
First, for example, the concept of work organization is to be found in the pure ergonomic occupational research tradition which considers the way in which equipment and people are adapted to each other at work. With respect to human beings, what is central is how they react to and cope with the equipment. In terms of strain and effectiveness, the amount of time spent at work is also important. Such time aspects include how long the work should go on, during which periods of the day or night, with what degree of regularity, and which time-related opportunities for recovery are offered in the form of the scheduling of breaks and the availability of lengthier periods of rest or time off. These time conditions must be organized by management. Thus, such conditions should be regarded as organizational factors within the field of ergonomic research—and as very important ones. It may be said that the time devoted to the work task can moderate the relationship between equipment and worker with respect to health effects.
But there are also wider ergonomic approaches: analyses are extended to take into account the work situation in which the equipment is employed. Here it is a question of the work situation and the worker being well adapted to each other. In such cases, it is the equipment plus a series of work organizational factors (such as job content, kinds and composition of tasks, responsibilities, forms of cooperation, forms of supervision, time devoted in all its aspects) which make up the complex situation which the worker reacts to, copes with and acts within.
Such work organizational factors are taken account of in broader ergonomic analyses; ergonomics has often included consideration of the type of work psychology which focuses on the job content of the individual (kinds and composition of tasks) plus other related demands. These are regarded as operating in parallel with physical conditions. In this way, it becomes the task of the researcher to adopt a position on whether and how the physical and work organizational conditions with which the individual is regularly confronted contribute to aspects of ill-health (e.g., to stress and strain). To isolate cause and effect is a considerably more difficult undertaking than is the case when a narrow ergonomic approach is adopted.
In addition to the work organizational conditions to which the individual is regularly exposed there are a number of work organizational phenomena (such as recruitment policies, training programmes, salary systems) which may be more peripheral, but still have decisive importance in terms of what is offered to the worker by his or her immediate work situation. This broader spectrum (and one might still wonder whether it has been treated broadly enough) is of interest to the researcher who wishes to understand the relationship between the individual worker and activities as a whole.
Whereas work psychology has its focus on the individual’s occupational tasks and connected job demands in relation to the individual’s capacity, the subject of organizational psychology refers to individuals as defined by the place they occupy within an organization, as organizational members more or less outwardly visible, more or less active. The point of departure for the organizational approach is the operation of a company or organization and those various parts of it in which individuals are themselves involved.
Carrying out activities requires various organizational arrangements. A unifying organizational structure is required; activities as a whole need to be broken down into identifiable job tasks. A task structure has to be created in accordance with selected job distribution principles. Thus, management systems, technical systems and maintenance routines are all required; and, in many cases, there is a need for special safety systems and occupational health promotion systems in addition to the legally required safety organization.
In addition to the structural requirements for accomplishing tasks, systems for remuneration and control must be implemented. Co-determination systems and systems for skills development and training (not least so that the technical systems can be mastered) must all be in operation. All of these systems can be described as organizational factors. They have the character of formalized activities designed to achieve a specific purpose, and have a parallel existence within the company. As mentioned above, they may be either permanent or instigated for a shorter or longer temporary period, but they all have some sort of influence on the terms on which the individual works. They can be examined from various psychosocial perspectives: as support resources for the worker, as control instruments employed by management, or as success factors for management or employees. The interaction between these various organizational systems is of the greatest interest: their aims are not always compatible; rather, they can be on a collision course. The “bearers” of the systems are human beings.
Organizational Change and its Psychosocial Aspects
To survive as an organization, management must constantly pay attention to what is going on in the world outside, and must be constantly ready for change. Sudden changes forced by outside influences—such as a loss of interest by a major customer, changes in demand, sudden appearance of new competitors, demands for information from government authorities or governmental acts which restructure the public sector—must produce immediate but rational reactions from management. The reaction is often to reorganize part or all of the business activity. Most of the time, the situation is hardly one that puts the needs of health of the individual in the foreground, or provides the time required for long-drawn-out participation of employees in negotiations over change. Even if, in the long run, such negotiations would have been constructive, the fact is that management usually places its hope in the obedience and trust of the employees. Those who want to remain employed must accept the situation.
Karasek (1992) in a survey of papers written for the ILO distinguishes between planned organizational changes with regard to the extent to which they are “expert-directed” or “participation-directed”. The projects did not display any national differences with regard to the relative weight placed on expert and participation direction. However, it is maintained (Ivancevich et al. 1990) that the role of top management is important in organizational-change projects designed to reduce the presence of occupational stress and improve workers’ well-being and health. Such interventions require the collaborative efforts of management/staff and employees, and possibly also of experts.
When structural changes occur, it is inevitable that feelings of uncertainty will arise in all members of the organization. Despite the fact that all will experience uncertainty, the degree and types of uncertainty will vary according to position in the organization. The prerequisites for gaining a true picture of how well or badly the company is proceeding in the changes are completely different at the management and employee levels. At the risk of oversimplifying the situation somewhat, we can speak of two types of feelings of uncertainty:
1. Knowing about the uncertainty of the organization’s continued existence or success. This type of uncertainty feeling will be found in decisionmakers. “Knowing about the uncertainty” means that the person in question can make an evaluation of the relative advantages and disadvantages in coping with the uncertain situation. He or she has the opportunity to deal with the situation actively (e.g., by obtaining more information, trying to influence people and so on). Alternatively, a person can react to the change negatively by trying to avoid the situation in various ways, such as seeking other employment.
2. Not knowing about the uncertainty of the organization’s continued existence or success. This type of uncertainty will be found in employees in non-decision-making posts. “Not knowing about the uncertainty” means that the individual has difficulty in making a judgement and generally has only the opportunity to react passively (taking a wait-and-see approach, remaining in an unsettled and diffuse state, letting others take action).
Psychologically, especially when trying to prevent environmental effects of work, these differing feelings of uncertainty are very important. One side will feel alienated toward the subjective reality of the other side. The initiative for a change in organization usually comes from high up in the hierarchy, and the primary aim is increased efficiency. Work on organizational change revitalizes a manager’s work content since change brings about new conditions which must be dealt with. This can become a positive challenge, often a stimulation. Among non-management employees, a reorganization has a more conditional function: it is a good thing only to the extent that it improves, or leaves unaltered, the employees’ current and future work situation.
From a more detached perspective, people in specialist administrative positions or organizational experts may show a third reaction pattern: the reorganization is interesting, whatever the result. It can be looked on as an experiment showing how the employees and the business are affected—knowledge that will be of value in the future to an administrator or organizational expert in the same or another company.
Changes in organization are complicated actions not only because of the practical changes that must be introduced, but also because they often have psychological and psychosocial consequences. The result is that the atmosphere at work reflects differing interests in the proposed changes and various types of psychic stress. Also this complex social reality is difficult to study in a systematic way.
Business economists, sociologists, and psychologists differ in their approach to interpreting the links between organizational change and individual working conditions. The psychology of work and organization directs attention to the employees and to the conditions under which they labour. An effort is made to obtain systematized knowledge about the effects of organizational change on individual health and work opportunities. It is this approach that gives us information on the occupational mental health consequences.
In organizational sociology the individual conditions upon which organizational change has an impact are mostly analysed in order to understand/describe/discover the consequences for the content of intergroup and interorganizational relationships and dependencies. In the business and administrative sciences there may be an interest in psychological aspects, with the aim of understanding certain attitudes and behaviours of the members of the organization (sometimes only those of the key persons in some sense) crucial for the progress of business activities.
Measurement of Organizational Factors
Organizational factors, division of work, decentralization, reward systems are not physical objects! They are intangible. It is not possible to take hold of them, and most of them express themselves in activities and interactions which disappear with greater or lesser rapidity, only to be replaced by new ones. Those work organization dimensions which it is possible to “measure” (in roughly the same way as is the case with physical factors) are, not surprisingly, also the ones that a researcher with a background in the natural sciences finds most manageable and acceptable. Time, for example, can be measured objectively, with a measuring instrument that is independent of the human being. How work is organized in terms of time (the time spent at work and time for breaks and lengthier periods of rest) can scarcely cause major measurement problems for ergonomists. On the other hand, the individual’s own perception of aspects of time is psychological, and this is considerably more difficult to measure.
It is also relatively easier for the investigator to come to terms with work organizational factors that are given material form. This is what happens when instructions for managers, job descriptions and work procedures are put in writing, and also applies when control systems and forms of personnel coordination are documented. The systematic analysis of the contents of these texts can provide useful information. However, it should be remembered that actual practice can deviate—sometimes significantly—from what is prescribed in writing. In such cases, it is not so easy to obtain a systematic picture of people’s activities and attitudes.
Taking the Step from Conceptualization toEmpirical Study
Measurement of organizational phenomena is based on a variety of information sources:
Which kind of information should be given priority has to do partly with the kind of organizational factor to be assessed and with method preferences, and partly with the organization’s generosity to let the investigator explore the field in the way he or she prefers.
Measurement in organizational research is seldom an either/or issue, and is most often a “multisource” enterprise.
In measuring organizational change it is even more necessary to give attention to the characteristic features. A great deal happens in interpersonal relationships before and at a very early stage after change is initiated. In contrast to laboratory experiments or in meetings where group questionnaires can be taken, the situation (i.e., the process of change) is not under control. Researchers who study organizational change should find this unpredictable process fascinating and not be irritated by it or be impatient. Industrial sociologists ought to have the same feeling. The idea of evaluating final effects should be abandoned. We must realize that preventive work consists of being at hand the whole time and providing adequate support. One should be especially careful with formal superior-subordinate (employee) situations.
Evaluating the research on organizational change from an occupational health perspective leads to the conclusion that there has been a great variation of interest shown in the health of employees, especially their psychosocial health, when organizational changes are taking place. In some cases the matter has been left totally to chance, with a complete lack of interest or consideration by top management and even among members of safety and health committees. In other cases there may be an interest, but no experience to base it on. In some cases, however, one can glimpse a combination of efficiency and health reasons as the motivation for organizational change. The case in which the main objective is to preserve or improve employee psychosocial health is a rarity. However, there is a growing awareness of the importance of considering employee health during all stages of organizational change (Porras and Robertson 1992).
During organizational change, relationships should ideally be marked by a feeling of cooperation, at least at the informal level. Resources for all these activities are available in many present-day companies with their personnel functions, their department charged with organization, company-run occupational health departments and interested union representatives. In some of these companies there is also a more explicit philosophy of prevention directing management on different levels towards an effective use of all these resources and moving the professionals of these various functions towards fruitful cooperation. This visible trend to consider occupational health aspects in the implementation of organizational change may hopefully expand—something which, however, requires more consciousness among occupational health-experts of the importance of being well acquainted with the thinking and theorizing on organizational conditions.