Why work is competitive and not cooperative

With healthy work to corporate success

The working society is developing from an industrial mode of production to a service-oriented knowledge economy. The essential prerequisites for innovation and operational competitiveness are human potential. Only healthy, motivated and appropriately qualified people are able and willing to perform creative and communicative activities. In view of the future developments in the working society, a health-friendly work design can contribute to successfully coping with the upcoming operational tasks.

On the way to the knowledge society

The working society is in the transition from industrial production to the knowledge economy. Global competition, intensified customer orientation and increasing work productivity are central challenges that successful companies face. The worldwide mobility of people, information and capital means that products and services are created and traded worldwide where conditions and prices are favorable.

In view of the intensified global competition, the desired social prosperity can only be secured through customer-oriented services and innovations. Innovative companies are demonstrably more profitable than their competitors. A study by the management consultancy Arthur D. Little (2004) showed that companies were able to increase their turnover by an average of around 13 percent through systematic innovation management.

Innovation and cooperation

Innovation describes the successful implementation of a new idea in marketable products, services, organizational innovations or changed behavior. Innovations are aimed at the needs of market participants. The market economy theory tries to reconcile the needs on the demand side with the supply side through a freely accessible market. In practice, however, a rigid division of labor and excessive competitive thinking often make it difficult to bring together the knowledge of producers and consumers. This means that there is considerable potential for innovation.

Considerations to compensate for the system-related deficits of the production method based on the division of labor lead to forms of cooperative service provision. Their economic core no longer consists of the production of standard products in the highest possible number - as propagated by industrial production methods. In order to expand the company's position in saturated markets, what counts is rather the creation of customer-differentiated goods and services. This is based on close cooperation between business partners. By getting to know the needs of their customers, companies can largely avoid unproductive undesirable developments that drive prices up but offer no real customer benefit.

A central task for strengthening the ability to innovate is thus the promotion of cooperation in which people connect in order to bring together their needs and skills (cf. Braun 2008).

Innovations are made by people

Mind, creativity and communication skills are irreplaceable. Striving for knowledge and the will to improve are prerequisites for every innovation. Technical institutions can support this innovation process, but never initiate it. In the knowledge economy, healthy, qualified and motivated employees have significant resource potentials to increase the company's innovation and competitiveness (Braun 2004).

The development of creative resource potential with conventional, incentive-related management methods is increasingly reaching its limits. So creativity and work pleasure cannot be prescribed. The introduction of ideas or the attention to the cooperation partners cannot be appropriately demanded on a contractual basis. Rather, people get involved when their work conveys meaning and contributes to the realization of their personal goals in life. Cooperative knowledge work is particularly effective when a high degree of individual competence and intrinsic motivation is achieved in the company. Work activities that make sense in themselves and serve the needs of others contribute to this.

Good work promotes innovation

Studies on economic performance show that innovative top companies actively promote the development of their employees and give them extensive scope for action in the application and testing of knowledge. Creating high-quality working conditions and aligning employees with a common corporate vision is a central management task. The study “What is good work?” (Kistler et al. 2004), for which more than 6,000 dependent employees were surveyed as part of the “New Quality of Work” initiative, shows that favorable conditions prevail in companies. The noticeable result of the survey is the generally positive attitude of the employed towards their work as well as their high level of motivation. 72 percent of those surveyed said they were often proud of their work; around 64 percent had often enjoyed working in the past four working weeks. 54 percent of the employees were even enthusiastic about their work. Despite a high level of identification with their work, 61 percent of those surveyed stated that their work is never or rarely recognized by managers or colleagues. Forty-eight percent said they rarely or never felt connected to their company in the past four weeks. 27 percent felt they were under-challenged in terms of their specialist competencies, skills and organizational talents. That was correspondingly high

Willingness of employees to get more involved: 66 percent of those surveyed stated that it is important or very important to them to further develop their skills; 65 percent thought it was important to take on responsible tasks. There is considerable potential for improvement here.

Workloads change

With all the opportunities that arise from the development of the working society, changed working conditions can have a detrimental effect on the stressful situation of working people. Examples are shortened professional planning phases for fixed-term contracts, increasing demands on flexibility in terms of time and location, constant availability and increased performance requirements. Mental stress and chronic illnesses which, among other things, resulting from changed forms of work can lead to serious loss of performance.

Mental health disorders have become widespread among employees in recent years. Impaired psychological well-being is one of the most common causes of poor work performance and absence due to illness. More than half of the employees in the European Union complain about work-related physical damage to health - and this despite a wealth of relevant regulations and controls (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Proportion of health complaints per 100 interviewed employees in EU 27 countries. Fourth Survey on Working Conditions. Eurofound, 2005

More than 100,000 people in Germany leave their working life prematurely every year for medical reasons. In 2006, around 470 million days of incapacity for work caused economic production losses of around 43 billion euros in Germany. The annual loss of gross value added is estimated at around 66 billion euros (BAuA 2008).

There is no need for detailed evidence that this immense waste of resources runs counter to the current business and economic efficiency principles. Against the background of changed workloads and demographic development, healthy, motivated and qualified people are a prerequisite for the innovation and competitiveness of companies in both social and economic terms. The World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization have made this clear in a joint memorandum (WHO / ILO 2000).

Action-guiding understanding of health

In operational practice, the concept of health sometimes meets with a lack of understanding and thus makes it more difficult to organize work in a health-friendly manner. A medical perspective has established itself in everyday understanding that explains health as the absence of illness and ailments. Health should describe the ideal function of the body. Whether someone is healthy or ill is usually determined by measuring physiological norms and their deviations (e.g. increased blood pressure, obesity). Healthy is someone who is pain-free and is not undergoing medical treatment.

Under the conditions of the knowledge economy - d. H. if the psycho-social human factors are increasingly included - this bio-physiological definition of health is not sufficient. The contemporary understanding of health is based on a positive human viability. In everyday life, health is viewed as the ability to solve problems, act and regulate emotions. Accordingly, those who move actively, systematically and purposefully in their world, develop further and develop new areas of action and life through learning are healthy. This ability can be established or maintained through physical, psychological and social well-being - above all through positive self-confidence - as well as a supportive network of social relationships.

It is noteworthy that health was described in ancient Hebrew as »constructive, artistic, productive action« - and less as the opposite pole to illness, as is only common in more recent usage. Health in this comprehensive sense is a prerequisite and result of a productive examination of the conditions and challenges of work.

Health is an indicator of a balanced, sustainable development or development of individual abilities and talents - such as the ability to think and judge, the ability to concentrate and the will to act. It thus indicates the prerequisites for operational innovation and competitiveness. It is irrelevant which business or private circumstances influence or even impair health. Individual health cannot be sensibly divided into a private and a company component. In the company's interest, it is crucial that the performance potentials required for value creation are maintained and promoted in a preventive sense.

Reorientation of health protection and occupational medicine

For decades, health protection and occupational medicine have primarily focused on preventing acute damage events or accidents at work and on influencing individual stress factors with a clear effect on health. Here, preventive health protection focused on reducing the accident and illness-related absenteeism rate. The meritorious efforts of health protection stakeholders and comprehensive measures to improve occupational safety and accident prevention have resulted in the number of serious and fatal occupational accidents falling continuously in the past. The accident and illness-related absenteeism rate is currently at a low of around 5 percent of the individual collective working hours. If you look at the causes of absenteeism and absenteeism, an average of around 10 percent of incapacity for work can be traced back to accidents. This can be stabilized or slightly reduced by further, necessary preventive measures to prevent accidents. On the other hand, the majority of around 90 percent of incapacity for work can be traced back to illnesses (see Fig. 2). Thus, the greatest potential benefit of absenteeism-oriented prevention lies in health protection measures to reduce work-related illnesses. Relevant experience shows that around a third of all illnesses can be traced back to inadequate working conditions and can be influenced by company preventive measures. In addition to avoiding human suffering, such measures can be expected to significantly reduce disease and consequential costs.

Fig. 2: Health prevention primarily affects employees who are present

What is more important, however, is that the traditional understanding of prevention addresses the issue of presenterism, i. H. the way in which the service is provided by employees who are present but whose health is impaired has so far been largely neglected. Thus, only an inadequate contribution is made to the active promotion of human performance resources such as commitment, creativity and the ability to act. Such measures, on the other hand, develop the essential potential benefit of health-friendly work design in the knowledge economy.

Future strategies for a health-friendly work design

The topics of health-friendly work design, which go beyond occupational safety, accident prevention and health protection, have so far not played the role in companies that corresponds to their importance. In sustainable forms of work, people play a more socially and communicatively active role. Opportunities for influencing working conditions and work execution are growing, and the performance requirement is increasing. To the extent that human knowledge and skills shape operational innovation and competitiveness, appropriate paths must be paved for their development. Willingness to perform as well as the development of knowledge and creativity are closely linked to the conditions of health. Only a healthy and motivated employee can sustainably mobilize their intellectual and creative potential and thus make optimal use of the company.

The development of the working society gives rise to expanded tasks for health-friendly work design. It should increasingly devote itself to promoting health-promoting work quality and the development of human resource potential in order to contribute to the innovation and competitiveness of companies. Aspects of performance intensification, stress or communication deficits in the company are to be discussed as examples. Likewise, the conflicts and burdens caused by management style, superiors behavior and inappropriate job instructions should be addressed (see Fig. 3). The relevance of these problem areas can be judged from the attention that current management literature pays to them.

Fig. 3: Causes of low commitment. Evaluation of 1668 project studies. Source: Proudfoot 2004

Health-oriented work design can contribute to avoiding unhealthy working conditions and (self-) damaging behavior as well as to strengthening individual skills through company measures. The resource-oriented salutogenesis concept sets an accent here by abandoning the path of a one-sided, hazard-oriented approach. In the change from the pathogenic (i.e. disease-oriented) paradigm of risk avoidance to the salutogenic paradigm of health promotion, the health risks of work and corresponding stress-specific prevention strategies are not primarily considered. With the focus on a salutogenic prevention concept, a fundamentally positive attitude towards work asserts itself: If the pathogenic perspective is about illness, lost work and losses, the salutogenic concept primarily focuses on health, competence and quality of life.

It should be noted that the creation of healthy working and living conditions goes far beyond the company's sphere of influence.


In the knowledge economy, creative people play a decisive role in improving business innovation and competitiveness. Numerous company examples show that measures for health-friendly work design can contribute to promoting the commitment and the ability to act of the employees and thereby increasing the operational process and product quality. Nevertheless, the potential benefits of healthy work design must be more effectively exploited in the future, especially against the background of the »aging society«. Under the conditions of the knowledge economy, health-friendly work design is an investment in the performance resources of working people - and thus an investment in the future of each individual, company and society (Braun 2008a). If health is viewed as a quality feature of work and as a prerequisite for company value creation processes, then health-friendly work design can provide important impulses for modernizing companies and the economy.


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Dr. Martin Braun
Fraunhofer IAO
[email protected]