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Promoting Health at Work in a Changing World

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Christine Springer
April 3, 2015

Springer aprilThe ultimate paradox for public managers today is the inability to forecast the future, yet remain healthy and safe in their work and home environments. Public managers must devise strategies rooted in their own point of view and then get there ahead of the crowd. However, many are content with getting there just in time and some are even willing to settle for getting there fashionably late. Those behind the curve focus on quick-fix problems, avoiding the kind of long-term dilemmas and solutions that characterize the future.

More and more dilemmas have emerged due to situations becoming more complex, making it increasingly critical to choose, prioritize and operationalize strategic initiatives such as the Federal Occupational Health’s Operation Five Star has done since 2008. On March 2, a six week MARCHMAYHEM employee health competition begins which supports them in achieving their physical activity goals while enhancing overall well being.

It’s important to think 10 years ahead and to apply both sense-making skills to dilemmas and to move from insight to action. According to one forecast, there are five driving forces that will shape the next 10 years. Those forces are:

  1. Personal empowerment.
  2. Grassroots economics.
  3. Smart networking.
  4. Polarizing extremes.
  5. Health insecurity. 

With regard to personal empowerment, engaged citizens and consumers are increasingly characterized by three behaviors: self-agency (acting with independence but with close links to others), self-customization (adapting and applying core products and services to individual needs with the expectation that customization will eventually be available) and self-organization (organizing responses and initiatives in ways that are difficult to anticipate but that shift from consumption to creation). This personal empowerment will also be shaped by aging baby boomers as they move from retirement to redirection, face greater health expenses, receive lower levels of Social Security and expand their horizons.

With regard to grassroots economics, economies of scale are moving from bigger always being better to economies of organization. The challenge is to grow financially in an environment where large and small scale are equally important to success.

With regard to smart networking, the trend is toward global connectivity where smart networkers live at the leading edge. Here, six factors are important: group participation, referral behavior, online lifestyle, personal mobile commuting, locational activity and computer connectivity.

With regard to polarizing extremes, strong opinions will become more prevalent on the Internet and for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population will live in cities challenging public managers to engage extreme groups when it is impossible to please all them or to develop common themes.

With regard to health insecurity, baby boomers will fund and fuel a new health economy. This economy will focus on how to grow a culture of health by doing things like body building, medical modification and death denial. It is likely that they will do so without the help of Medicare or Medicaid.

In order to deal effectively with these forces, public managers need to design and evaluate organizational structures and how they can be modified to adapt and succeed. One example of an organization effectively managing change was the Federal Occupation Health Agency and its 2008 reorganization to become a one-stop shop for health services.

This non-appropriated agency is housed within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is the largest provider of occupational health services in the federal government. Created in 1946, it serves more than 360 federal agencies and 1.8 million federal employees. To do so, Operation Five-Star was created to choose, prioritize and operationalize strategic initiatives. Among the first steps taken was to reduce the 12 initiatives to 6 included:

  1. Workforce planning.
  2. Acquisition management and planning.
  3. Establishing a project management office.
  4. Improving interagency agreements and statement-of-work processes.
  5. Integrating health and wellness programs.
  6. Branding of agency products.

By focusing early on expanding employee recognition, creating a uniform new employee orientation and creating new awards and recognition for employees and contractors, the organization demonstrated both progress and senior leadership commitment. Operation Five-Star continues today and several of the first-stage initiatives have already been implemented. Second stage initiatives involve focusing on change management, assessing previous actions and adjusting initiatives to the shifting nature of resources and agency priorities for federal employees, U.S. public health service officers and contract vendor employees.

Key to the success of Operation Five Star was the creation of cross functional teams, support from senior leadership, virtual meetings which saved time and boosted productivity and a business-case format for recommending initiatives that enhanced the executive team’s decision making and ultimately accelerated implementation.

In the final analysis, future success requires that public managers be flexible and use foresight to address issues as change occurs.  That means being willing to identify what forces outside the organization are affecting outcomes and creating health initiatives like MARCHMAYHEM that inspire participants to commit to a healthy lifestyle, build camaraderie among colleagues, create and stick to a regular physical activity routine and make behavioral changes for reaching and maintaining a healthy body weight and reducing high blood pressure.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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