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Lessons from the Amazon Exposé

The New York Times published an article recently about Amazon and how they treat their employees. For a moment, I thought it was an article about the blue collar employees highlighted last summer working in 100 degree warehouses without air conditioning and with crazy high productivity requirements. When I read that article last summer, I considered boycotting Amazon. Apparently, they did, ultimately, install air conditioning for those workers. 

This month’s article about the way white collar workers are treated demonstrated that while Amazon's practices may not be reasonable, they are, unfortunately, consistent.  Employees are expected to work long hours, always be available, report a co-worker’s failing to that person’s boss, and “challenge” each other’s ideas vehemently (it's not clear exactly what that means, but it  appears to allow and even encourage rudeness and yelling). They do not receive the perks common in other high tech companies such as healthy food choices, exercise options, and liberal vacation or parental leave.

The day after the story broke, Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder disavowed these practices and stated, “I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.”  Amazon is certainly an industry leader but are they thriving?  They are a for profit company that does not turn a profit.  They may want to consider improving their treatment of employees if they really want to take the next step and actually meet Wall Street expectations.
From a perspective of the products and services they offer, is their definition of success where we need to be going? I actually don’t want to be able to push a button in the bathroom to order more toilet paper from Amazon and I don’t want product delivered to me by drones.  In all fairness, I do make purchases from Amazon and take advantage of their deals.
We do not know whether Amazon’s practices are as harsh and insensitive as reported in the New York Times article.  Only time will tell whether Amazon will succeed in improving its bottom line. We do know that the practices reported would be problematic and counterproductive for any company striving for success, regardless of how success is measured. Research has shown what all companies need to understand and incorporate into their cultures:
  • We need sleep. Science shows that we need six to eight hours of sleep a night to be effective and productive as well as healthy. One of the keys to a good night’s sleep is stepping away from electronics one to two hours before going to bed. The practice of sending and responding to emails at 2 AM is inconsistent with healthy sleep patterns.
  • We can’t always be productive.  We need breaks from our computers.  Our bodies need them and our minds need them.  Sitting at a computer without a break for even 2 hours let alone a total of 10 or 15 hours a day decreases rather than increases productivity.  A popular approach, called the Pomodoro, is to work for 20-25 minutes and then step away for five minutes before picking up again for another 25 minutes.  Jack Groppel, at the Human Performance Institute, talks about work as a series of sprints rather than a marathon. It is often during recovery time that we have our sparks of brilliance and our best ideas. How often have you solved a complex work problem on a run or in a shower or first thing in the morning after a good night’s sleep?
  • Kindness matters. I agree that an idea improves when it can be debated honestly and without fear of being fired or being accused of subterfuge. Science tells us that kindness matters and these two ideas are not incompatible, in fact, arguably, they are synergistic. Being kind in the workplace leads to better outcomes.  Moreover, being kind leads us to want to be kind more, to be healthier, and to be more effective. Harshness in the workplace or undue stress does not yield more effective outcomes.  When our bodies react to stress, they release cortisol.  The excess cortisol races through our systems causing us to be unable to make the best decisions; we can’t access the best parts of our brain.  Moreover, the half-life of that cortisol is 18 hours, meaning that not only do we not make a good decision in the moment, but  separate, unrelated decisions made many hours later can also be compromised.   
  • Concern for employee wellbeing is a key success factor. Gallup Healthways released a study earlier this year that demonstrated the importance to employees of believing that their managers are concerned about their wellbeing. They perform better, stay longer, and are more productive. The Amazon practices seem counter to this well researched finding. Their process of selecting employees to lay off seems Draconian but, more importantly, the fact that it exists destroys even the illusion of managers being concerned about employee wellbeing. Science says that the “dog eat dog” world described at Amazon is not the way to be effective in the long term.
  • Eating well and exercise not only improve health, they improve performance. Amazon does not offer many of the perks of its sister companies such as healthy food, work out facilities, exercise opportunities, or even stretch bands in meeting rooms. Maybe this means employees sit at their desks or in meetings for longer hours and may even produce more work by some measurements. The question is whether they are actually more productive or enhancing the bottom line with this approach.  
  • Life matters. Amazon does not seem to be concerned about work life balance. The article talks about people who had to leave employment with Amazon because of wanting to spend time with children or aging parents or to deal with cancer or other health issues. Perhaps they, and we as their customers, have lost sight of what matters most in this world.
I am not naïve (at least I don’t believe I am). I understand how business works and the importance of the bottom line. On some levels I understand that Amazon is responding to customer demand (although in many ways they are creating it).  There is not a good competitor to Amazon for comparison. There is good evidence for equal or better success by companies that take a different, more holistic approach and these companies are making a profit. The fear, of course, is that Amazon, as the 800 pound gorilla, will be seen as a leader and there will be others who follow this lead. I do not believe that will happen. I believe my generation is more aware than ever before of the importance of employee wellbeing and work life balance.  Even more inspiring are the Millenials I talk to.   They are not willing to exchange all of their hours for dollars or glory.  They are going to demand a life that is in balance and I think we need to listen.
Being Healthier at Work

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For the remainder of August, I am offering this program FREE of charge.  Sign up here.

This 11 day program, via email and video, is an opportunity to experience first hand the workplace benefits of feeling better, being healthier, and breaking the sugar addiction. Sign Up for the Sugar Challenge

Contact me if you have ten people or more at your workplace who are interested and I will offer you an in person lunch and learn as part of the challenge.
 Our Webinar "EMBRACE ORGANIZATIONAL ADOPTION TECHNIQUES AND IMPROVE YOUR BOTTOM LINE: How Health and Wellness Directly Link to Improved Results"  was so popular that we have created a three part video series that you can listen to at your convenience. Sign up and receive one section each Monday for three weeks
About Me
I am a strategic planning and implementation consultant with extensive experience helping government, business, and non-profit organizations achieve their vision.   I have more than twenty years of experience in management and IT consulting, facilitation, program management, business relationship management, business process redesign and IT Service Management development.  I am also a Certified Health Coach and HeartMathâ„¢ Mentor.

My Philosophy

I have often seen projects, programs, and strategic plans fail or not be fully implemented.  One of the contributing factors is often a work force that is over-stressed, unhealthy, and not committed to the end result. At the same time, corporate health and wellness programs tend to be underutilized with employees not taking advantage of available opportunities.  

One common key component of successful strategic planning, successful programs, and successful project management is a fully engaged workforce.   By incorporating health and wellness into these efforts, rather than having health and wellness programs as separate functions, the employees have a voice in what is included in the program and see their ability to influence corporate strategies. They are also more likely to embrace these strategies.  In my experience, including employee wellness in corporate strategies demonstrates the organization’s commitment to their employees and leads to a more productive, healthier, more creative, and more engaged workforce. 

My focus is working with organizations to help them grow and reach the next level.

Learn more about me
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