How can employee empowerment be made conducive to both employee health and organisation performance? An empirical investigation of a tailor-made approach to organisation learning in a municipal public service organisation
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Employees are often encouraged to take on more control over their work practices, so as to generate “more for less” solutions to the benefit of their employers, clients and themselves. To employees such increased control – or empowerment – generates ambiguities: Unprecedented opportunities to create fulfilling jobs are accompanied by unprecedented complexity, competence demands, and responsibilities for outcomes of work practices. The research issue highlighted in this thesis is how employee empowerment processes can be made conducive to both employee health and organisation performance. This constructive issue is examined using data from a tailor-made approach to organisation learning, carried out in a municipal Department of Adolescent Services (DOAS) in Norway. DOAS collaborated with Centre for Health Promotion in Settings (CHPS) on developing the tailor-made approach. CHPS assumed that employees by improving their generalist competencies (for instance in decision making, interdisciplinary collaboration, organisation learning, and project work), in combination with conducting action research on own work practices, could increase their control over work practices in ways conducive to both employee health and organisation performance. It was also assumed that collaboration between employees at various levels and units in the work organisation was crucial for such a development, and that increased control had to transcend the level of daily work practices and include the levels of prioritising (deciding on objectives), and organising (deciding on how to divide tasks between employees). The tailor-made approach (TMA) in DOAS combined a 15 ECTS course in “Interdisciplinary collaboration in practice” and six “workplace development projects” (WDPs), tailored to DOAS’ vision of employee empowerment, and to DOAS’ self-defined needs for competence and workplace development. CHPS had primary responsibility for the course, whereas DOAS had primary responsibility for the WDPs. These two components were intended to support generation of knowledge in the intersections between work and education. The employees recruited to the TMA had little or no prior knowledge of each other. They were divided between the six WDP-groups, which had wide decision making latitude. When the TMA ended after approximately 10 months in December 2000 the WDP-groups had strengthened their capacities for organisation learning, but had not succeeded in sustaining empowerment processes or in improving both employee health and organisation performance. Three likely explanations as to why not were identified: 1) employees’ previous experiences with change initiatives in the work organisation, 2) shortcomings in the TMA-framework (group compositions, supervision, feedback from managers), and 3) employees’ competencies in decision making and workplace development. However, in parallel with the WDP-groups’ activities the top-management group (TMG) in DOAS took a number of initiatives facilitating increased employee control over ongoing work practices, both concerning priorities, organisation and daily work practices. These initiatives were followed up on and expanded by the TMG in the aftermath of DOAS’ collaboration with CHPS. When comparing DOAS of 1999 with DOAS of 2004-05 several changes could be identified. For instance, employees were participating much more actively in deciding upon priorities, there had been a series of incremental changes in DOAS’ formal organisation consistent with the objectives, there was a much higher level of trust across layers and units in the organisation, and the mandates for most middle-management positions had been altered so as to strengthen continuous workplace development. DOAS had succeeded in increasing employee control over a broad spectrum of work practices, and although the data on consequences thereof are somewhat scarce they most likely did so in ways strengthening both employee health and organisation performance. The activities initiated by DOAS itself proved to be more important to these developments than the course and other activities initiated by CHPS, but the developments in DOAS were still highly influenced by the CHPS’ perspectives and suggested approaches. The dynamic between the two organisations and the interplay between work and education was characterised by “CHPS suggested, DOAS decided”. The research documented in this thesis is based on data from an action research approach. The ambition was to generate knowledge that could be useful in work organisations facing similar challenges as the Department of Adolescent Services, and useful to disciplines engaged in the intersections between health and organisation performance in general, and (employee) empowerment in particular. It is argued that action research can be particularly relevant to develop knowledge about social change processes, and that action research can be compatible with generally accepted norms for how social science is to be carried out. The tailor-made approach documented and analysed in this thesis is suggested as an example of a settings approach to workplace health promotion. It combines perspectives on empowerment from the disciplines of health promotion and human resources. It highlights employee health and organisation performance as intertwined dimensions in work practice. It emphasises how employees themselves can transform stressful challenges into work practice that is coherent to them, and productive to stakeholders like owners and clients. The employee empowerment process is here analysed as comprised of three sub-processes; one characterised by exploration of scope for self-determination and decision making, one characterised by trial and error in developing new work practice, and one characterised by sustaining new work practice. Data support the assumptions that such processes are strengthened by collaboration across layers and units in the organisation, and strengthened by addressing both priorities, organisation and daily work practices. A vocabulary for organisation learning centred on these three levels proved to be highly useful in this case, as did a toolbox-perspective which provided employees with various theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches they could use at own discretion. Data allow analyses of how the relationship between employee empowerment on the one hand, and employee health and organisation performance on the other, can be strengthened depending on how power manifests, how facilitation by outside agents is carried out, how organisation learning is conducted, and how health and performance dimensions in work practices are intertwined. Tentative conclusions to these issues are suggested. The thesis is concluded with two lists of recommendations and dissuasions on facilitation of employee empowerment processes; one from a management perspective, and one from the perspective of an outside facilitator. These lists provide both practical and “theoretical” perspectives on how employee empowerment processes can be made conducive to both employee health and organisation performance.