How can we encourage safe and encouraging work environments?

It was a new thought for me: How a job could provide healing for trauma survivors.

I was talking with Dorothy Taft, executive director of The Market Project, whose mission is to create profitable businesses that offer stable employment for survivors of trafficking and exploitation. In 2016 the organization established Nguvu Dairy Ltd. to make and sell affordably priced yogurt in Uganda. The business provides jobs “in a healing workplace environment” for victims of sex trafficking, abduction, forced marriage, or the violence of war. Not all employees come from these backgrounds, and Taft’s team is striving for a “blended workplace.” The firm currently employs 41 people, of whom one-third are trauma survivors.

Leadership of Nguvu has created a trauma-informed workplace. That language comes from the field of psychology where trauma-informed counseling has become a therapeutic approach toward counselees. Supervisors and managers at Nguvu receive specialized training to build their understanding of trauma and its effects on individuals. Part of the health of the environment involves employees being engaged in a variety of hands-on tasks, enjoying a tangible sense of accomplishment. Celebrations, healthy community building activities that decrease survivors’ isolation, and discipline that is conducted with care all combine to create a supportive environment.

The Market Project just launched a three-year evaluation plan for the experiment. “We are measuring changes in employees’ physical and mental health, as well as economic and social wellbeing,” Taft reported in a recent interview.

Work is hard

Clearly, many of Nguvu Dairy’s workers have suffered in ways beyond most of our imaginations. But American workers also struggle within unhealthy workplaces. Two-thirds of American workers lack a college degree, limiting their career pathways. As recent research compiled by the Pew Research Center reported, real wages have not budged for most U.S. workers. Even in the strong economy, “today’s real average wage (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago.”

Perhaps equally depressing for the average worker are the toils, stresses, and even identity struggles blue-collar and service sector employees can face. Jeff Hanaan’s recent Christianity Today cover story argues that many working class Americans “see work as a constant struggle for survival.”

My 83-year-old mom is currently in a skilled nursing facility, recovering from a bad infection. This has brought me into daily contact with the low-paid nurse’s aides serving her (almost all minorities). Some are cheerful, others not. Watching what they have to do every day, I admire those who seem to recognize how vital their good work is and what a big difference it makes in mom’s life (and mine) when they conduct it with care, attentiveness, and kindness. I also sympathize with the ones who find the work distasteful, knowing that in their place I’d feel more like them than the kinder aides.

Seeing their situation up close has made me more attentive to the realities low-wage workers endure. I’m wondering what changes are possible. What can Christians with the power to shape workplaces do to make environments more conducive to workplace flourishing?

Better workplaces

Bob Chapman, CEO of manufacturing firm Barry-Wehmiller, has initiated multiple positive changes in his business. After preaching at his church, he began rethinking his workforce. He began to see each employee as “someone’s precious child.” The new perspective led him to genuinely seek out and listen to frontline workers about what could be done to make their daily experience better. He’s implemented many of their requests. He eliminated the break bell, allowing workers to take breaks as needed. He’s demonstrated a new level of trust by granting them access to previously locked-up tools and supplies. He changed how workers’ performance is discussed and assessed. These and other reforms are all expressions of Chapman’s “Truly Human Leadership,” a philosophy he’s actively pitching to other executives. As he explained his background in an interview with Inc. magazine, he shared how his mindset has shifted throughout his career:

I had been taught, both in school and in my first jobs in public accounting and the business world, to see people not as people but as functions: “That person is a receptionist, that one’s an engineer, that’s an accountant,” and so on. I didn’t realize what an impact that has on people. As I spent more time thinking about this, I found out that the vast majority of people—about 80 percent—feel they work for an organization that does not care about them. That’s a startling number.

Today, a common tagline at Barry-Wehmiller is “We’re more than just a successful capital equipment and technology solutions firm. We’re the kind of company at which you’d like your children to work.” For Chapman, the fact that many employees are the adult children of current or former employees is the best measure of success.

Chapman’s not the only Christian CEO who has learned to do things differently.

At Bigelow Homes in Chicago, Illinois, owners have worked hard to organize projects in ways that enable them to keep their constructions crews employed year-round in an industry that commonly lays them off in the winter. At L&R Pallet in Denver, Colorado, CEO James Ruder has hired more than 80 refugees and is paying most over $16 an hour. He’s also hired a chaplain and internal ministry director to address their off-the-clock needs, and they also offer English classes on-site.

Wendy Clark at Carpe Diem Cleaners in Durham, North Carolina, works to schedule her (mostly Latino, single-mom) employees’ work in ways that help ensure they’re able to meet their kids’ needs and attend their school functions. Ron and Rick Betenbough at Betenbough Homes in West Texas have deliberately developed a non-hierarchical management team with wide latitude and authority. Employees share in the company’s ownership and profits. Charitable giving is a vital part of the corporate culture and employees have a say in it. They can also go on company funded mission trips to see firsthand the positive influence of these investments.

Fully alive at work

At Nguvu Dairy, workers who’ve been through unspeakable tragedies are finding community, purpose, and affirmation. Here at home, Christian business owners and managers also have opportunities to create healthy workplace cultures. Those who have pioneered the way believe it’s good for the bottom line. As Ruder from L&R Pallet asserts, “No company can work over the long term without energized employees who believe in the mission.” By offering refugees a chance at a well-paying job in a positive environment that treats them with fairness and respect, Ruder has decreased employee turnover to less than 10%.

Even more importantly, putting people first gives these employers more joy themselves in their work. They’re experiencing the truth of “it’s better to give than receive.” And for Holly Betenbough, that’s a motivation to share the blessing with everyone who makes Betenbough Homes succeed. “My hope for our employees,” she says, “is that they would find a place [here] where they are loved, they are seen fully as who they are, appreciated and valued, and given opportunities to have an impact on others, [to be] a blessing in the lives of other people, and just be fully alive at work.”

Topics: Employee Engagement, Mission & Outreach

About the Author

Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP).