Fostering Health in the Workplace:
Ethical health – 15 May 2007
Ken McPhail’s talk
We were most grateful to Anderson Strathern for hosting us.
This was a talk with much intellectual content. I need the likes of this every now and then. As a note-taker and student of this topic, here is where I myself was coming from:
At this time, our Scottish economy is doing well, above all because of the success of the financial services sector. If we in Edinburgh neglect to maintain the highest ethical standards, we risk killing the goose that is laying the golden egg. Our enviable reputation can never be taken for granted. Scotland is known as a country where people can place their money and can trust it will be well stewarded. The more we in Edinburgh all take an interest in the area of business ethics, the more we will be playing our own responsible part in maintaining and enhancing this reputation.
Below is a broad paraphrase of what our speaker said in his talk on 15 May 2007. It may interest you to read the very last section first – or to read just that if you are in a hurry. It is called:
Some practical points.
Professor Ken McPhail set out to provoke us to think broadly and to make connections – in particular between ethics, be they good or bad ethics, and the world of work. Many of us in the workplace today are no doubt doing our job very diligently, but do we see our job in its ethical dimension? In this lunch-hour in the Fostering Health at Work series, he wanted us to see connections between ethics and health. He would tease out three main points:
- The impact of ethics on health
- The impact of ethics on the health of others
- Ways of improving ethical health
By way of introduction, Ken challenged us to catch a glimpse of an overarching view of ethics as seen from a philosophical standpoint. Thomas Hobbs said that without ethics it is impossible to even begin to talk about well-being, because humanity is characterised by “a condition of war” and so needs a common ethical code to avoid that worst of health problems: war and death! Thomas Hobbs argued that the concept of democracy should feature in any proposed ethical code.
So, bearing that in mind, when it comes to the world of work, may democratic organisations be the answer to that “condition of war” we would all too naturally slide into? Ken went on to pose many such questions in his talk, but said he would not, in the short time we had, be able to offer many answers. However, asking such questions has the potential to help us reclaim any lost ground when it comes to having an ethical perspective.
Then he angled in on a preoccupation of our times: human rights. If we hadn’t made the connection before between work, health and ethics, here was a paraphrase of Article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights: “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family.” Article 12 of the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also mentions the right to “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” Employees have a right to health and well-being. Global companies can find it a challenge fully to respect that right, e.g. if they have employees in such diverse countries as Scotland and Laos.
- The impact of ethics on health
Clearly, a bad ethical code can lead to serious health problems, as in alcoholism and drug addiction for instance. But just in the realm of our thinking / our outlook alone, we can adopt a bad ethical code which can be equally injurious to our health. Cliff Baxter didn’t drink alcohol to excess or take drugs, but as a one-time employee of Enron he ended up committing suicide. Ken Lay of Enron died. “Apparently, his heart simply gave out,” said his pastor. The impact on Lay of adopting a poor ethical code and drifting into wrongdoing turned out to be lethal.
More questions arise at this point, e.g. where does remorse or regret come from? Is there a moral compass deep within us, is it innate? Or do we develop a socio-moral response to our environment / conditioning? Ken Mc Phail’s well-known colleague at the University of Glasgow, Professor Downie, takes a keen interest in the role of the arts helping us develop our moral sense.
But it is not just having a bad ethical code that can be bad for your health. Having a good ethical code can be bad for your health too! Think of whistleblowers in the UK who have come under a lot of stress and often had to move jobs. Think further afield and more dramatically of Solzhenitsyn who merely criticised Stalin in a private letter and ended up in very poor health in the Gulag. Most dramatically of all, think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who took part in the unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler and was hanged just weeks before the end of the war. Having a good ethical code can cost you your job, your freedom, your health and even your life.
Ken then brought up the conundrum of doing the right thing but in the “wrong” organisation – i.e. one at odds with our ethical code. Yes, we can find ourselves in situations where our personal values are at loggerheads with the culture in our workplace. A dissonance results.
This too can result in the loss of one’s health. Ken cited one of the opening scenes of the recent film “Amazing Grace” where we see William Wilberforce in very poor health – such has been the strain of tackling the abusive transatlantic slave trade. He was one MP against practically all the rest of the Members of Parliament when he started out on his long campaign. This took its toll on him.
Bad people, bad structures and bad leadership – all of them can “do you in”!
This brought Ken to an antidote: the subject of trust. Trust is hugely important and we all too often take it for granted. Trust is more important to us than we realise. It is a fragile commodity. It undergirds health. But it can break down, e.g. when a person or group in an organisation moves from good practice into bad practice, ethical behaviour to unethical behaviour.
Indeed, employers and hirers take note: responsible people prefer to work in environments where they are trusted and feel they can trust other people in turn. Research in the US has shown that high-flying people think it is worth $20,000 to be able to work in a good, trusting atmosphere, i.e. they will forego $20,000 of salary in favour of a quality atmosphere of trust.
- The impact of ethics on the health of others
Our various jobs in any given organisation, our various ethical codes and resulting actions, coalesce to influence others, for better or for worse.
It has been pointed out that people can become detached in the way they work, working ethically soundly but in their own bubble, out of touch with the overall ethical stance of their operation. They can end up contributing to a very unethical result even though they are concerned in their bubble to be ethical.
The worst example of this in modern times must surely be what happened in the Holocaust. For it depended in part on well-mannered bankers, good engineers, prudent accountants, careful train drivers, diligent signalmen… Our various good, mixed or bad ethical codes when conjoined can coalesce to inflict pain or horror or even death.
In other words, all work and every job are ethically consequential. Every employee’s behaviour matters, not only that of those at the top. If for a moment we consider only those at the top, ethical leadership is not about stern discipline but about exercising virtues like honesty, truthfulness and humility. Every employee can add to their operation by exercising these same virtues.
- Ways of improving ethical health
The first thing that has to be said is that there is no simple, quick fix. Ken referred to the caveats on food packets, e.g. “this nutrition will only help if taken in the context of an overall healthy lifestyle.” Thus, eating healthy foods only at weekends won’t give you the full benefit of eating healthy foods. So it is with ethics and developing sound ethical codes. Going as an employee on a 5-week crash course in business ethics will not in itself do it, any more than a 5-week crash diet will on its own overcome being very overweight.
Ken had said we each play our part as individuals. Now he said we need a whole ethical culture around us if we are to maintain and then develop our own ethical code, and indeed our own ongoing ethical health. It is in our interests to support such a whole culture. In turn, a good workplace culture will support us in taking the right decisions, and in fact it will also help us where we may take the wrong decisions.
Implication: those in leadership and those who have been in the organisation longest and those of a responsible frame of mind all need to take a concern for the organisation’s culture, nurture it and develop it.
In an ideal organisation, everyone’s good personal values are welcomed and harnessed to make for an overall corporate culture that prizes good and does good. Such an organisation will feel good about itself and make a good contribution to society, be successful.
Thus Ken had brought us round again to an appreciation that there are connections to be made between our individual values, our organisation’s culture and indeed the overall societal culture we are living in. In particular, there is a connection to be made between personal and corporate codes of ethics on the one hand, and well-being, our health and the wholeness of life on the other.
Ken cited a helpful author: Mary Midgley. See especially her book “Heart and Mind” where the focus is on the unity of the human being. Midgley points up our all-too fragmented, compartmentalised thinking, living and working. Modern life has a tendency to separate and fragment. The work of ethics is to re-establish connections, especially between people! This is very important to groups of all kinds, and certainly to groups of people who work together for the same company or organisation.
But we can tend to only individualism and “me” thinking. We can see this in the emerging healthcare / health education thrust of our times: “Look after yourself and take responsibility.” But a truly ethical healthcare / health education thrust will want to go further though and look to the interests of others: “Look after others and treat others as you would like to be treated.”
Two further authors Ken cited were: Marc Galanter, e.g. “Spirituality and the Healthy Mind”, and Charles Taliaferro, e.g. “Consciousness and the Mind of God.” By citing these authors, Ken was saying that if we are to glimpse more fully the overarching place and significance of ethics in the world of work, we will need to stand back and consider the very meaning of life itself.
Like Ken’s business students these days, we will want to revisit for instance the basic question: what is a business for? And if we answer that question alluding to a concept like “the public good” or “the public interest,” that in turn of course will throw up the question: “Well, what is in the overall public interest / public good?” Ken can really get you thinking! Bottom line question: “Does society benefit?”
Such questions lie behind the growing interest in social enterprises, businesses with a social purpose. The number of these is growing at this time. Perhaps we shall hear from Antonia Swinson on this topic one day. She is the CE of the Scottish Social Enterprise Coalition.
Some practical points that this note-taker took away from the above talk and Ken’s similar address to Business in Glasgow:
- When I join an employer I really need to explore the organisation’s culture and ethical approach.
- Just because an organisation has a stated ethical code does not mean to say it has a thoroughly ethical approach. There can be a tendency to window-dressing and box-ticking. I need to look beyond the statements.
- A sign of a good ethical approach is where an organisation positively encourages dialogue, ie stakeholder engagement of every kind.
- Once in post, the best way to deal with any dissonance I may experience from an organisation’s departing from my own values and ethical code has got to be that word again: dialogue.
- A good employer will adopt and foster dialogue among its stakeholders.
- I can play my part.
- A good employer will want to keep staff and so be open to hearing what I may have to say – much preferring to have that opportunity than for me to announce simply that I am resigning.
- If I need to walk round the bush on any given ethical topic, I can do so with colleagues I respect.
- I should not give in to a sense of disempowerment.
- There are external networks I can plug into: forums, discussion groups, university departments like Ken McPhail’s, Business in Glasgow, business matters!
- I can make my contribution to my employer. I am doing my employer good when I bring up what may be unethical methods, because any business wants to be sustainable and in the long run only ethical organisations are sustainable. I only have to think of the sudden demise of the name Arthur Anderson.
- Working in an ethical environment can only do my overall health good.
Consultant to business matters