Occupational Health: "Employees, who like to contribute their talents, stay healthy"

Interview with Dr. Walter Komm

Dr. Walter Kromm, Master of Public Health, is not just a general practitioner, but also a health advisor for management professionals. During his many years of practical experience, he kept realizing how important employee health is for the health of an entire company. MEDICA.de spoke with him about basic needs in working life, fruit baskets and the power of management.

04/08/2014

Photo: Walter Kromm

Dr. Walter Kromm ©private

Dr. Kromm, you are a physician, have also worked as a corporate consultant for many years and conduct scientific research on management. Why did you specialize in this particular clientele?

Walter Kromm: The fact that I focus on management professionals and leadership in companies has something to do with my own background. I am a trained industrial business management assistant, completed my university-entrance diploma at a technical high school and studied medicine afterwards. After my residency, I took on a management position myself. After my official studies in public health, I assumed a position as a university lecturer at the Leadership Center (German: Zentrum Innerere Führung) before I supervised NATO executives for five years. My experiences have consequently motivated me to initiate the "Healthy Companies" research project. This is why I am always working both in the world of medicine and in the business world with its management professionals.

What is the focus of your current activities?

Kromm: Since my return to Germany, I am trying to find out in a large research project under what conditions management executives manage to handle challenging tasks with their associates without wearing out themselves and others. There have already been several studies conducted on this issue and we are getting ever closer to an answer to this question.

In your opinion, what is the main factor that influences health in a company?

Kromm: I strongly believe it is the quality of interaction between management professionals and their associates. We have conducted several studies on this subject. Almost 1,000 people participated in the largest study, both management executives and their life partners. The goal was to answer the question of what helps high performers remain healthy despite many potentially health hazardous influences. The result of this study in short was this: people are not getting sick, when they have to work a lot, but they become sick, when they have a lot of work and their most basic needs are being frustrated at the same time.
Photo: Boss and employes

Always meeting people at the same eye level - that makes a good manager, according to Walter Kromm; © panthermedia.net/Edhar Yuralaits

What needs are those?

Kromm: Every human being has a desire to raise their self-esteem, that being to obtain acknowledgment, appreciation and respect. In addition, there is the need for attachment. This means, everybody wants to belong somewhere and know that somebody is going to help him or her, if there are any problems. What’s more, every human being has the need to be able to develop and grow.

What experiences do you make with health programs in companies?

Kromm: Employee surveys and the resulting graphics and tables only change very little – at least that’s what I hear a lot in companies. The effort alone to do something health-related by offering cooking classes, putting up fruit baskets or forming exercise groups also doesn’t really make any company healthier.

You are not actually against fruit or exercise incentives, are you?

Kromm: I am not against fruit baskets, comfortable office chairs or sponsored memberships in health clubs at all, but those are not the big issues. Companies look closely at health statistics and rightfully so, because the five percent of employees, who are missing work are also really expensive. However, what companies are still not considering enough is the fact that the quality of those 95 percent, who are always at work, plays the truly decisive role.

If you manage to lead the vast majority of present employees to where they like to exchange resources and are committed to contribute their talents, it is the healthiest thing you can possibly imagine.

How does this work exactly?

Kromm: To find out, we conducted thought experiments under strictly anonymous conditions within the scope of another study with high performers from different companies, ranging from a DAX company to medium-sized companies from Germany and management executives from Switzerland. We wanted to know what people really want from their supervisors. In this case, the results were also surprisingly clear to where we were able to tell corporate management exactly what their high performers need and what they get back, when they provide those aspects to them.
Photo: Manager

A manager who gives his employees force simultaneously ensures the health of his company; ©panthermedia.net/ Pablo Scapinachis Armstrong

We then took this even a step further. We developed a measuring instrument to determine the quality of interaction between supervisors and associates and also created a loyalty and commitment index, among other things. Then we compared those groups where this loyalty index was very high with those groups where it was extremely low and particularly looked at how the supervisors in both of these groups differ.

So what do supervisors, who are lucky enough to have very committed and loyal employees, actually do? Those supervisors, who get a lot from their employees, give their employees what they need beforehand. They promote the coherence of their employees; that is to say, they help them to understand things. They encourage them, if there are problems, they convey the purpose of what they are doing, they give employees credit and appreciation and most importantly, they communicate at eye level. And what do supervisors want from their employees? Loyalty and a high degree of active commitment. Supervisors, who manage this, are then also true “managers”.

Is this a specific management style or more of a basic attitude when it comes to social interaction?

Kromm: These supervisors understand that there is interdependence. They manage to give people strength, which is why they are called managers.

Why are burnout syndrome and other stress-related disorders so common today?

Kromm: Burnout is a tricky subject. If you want to take something positive from the term burnout, it’s perhaps the fact that you are able to talk about psychological problems without being labeled as mentally sick or without having to be embarrassed. When someone says he or she suffers from burnout, it also suggests a high level of motivation.

However, you can also hide behind this term. You should not make a mental illness out of all vicissitudes of life, even if there are an enormous number of mental disorders at this point. Being mentally healthy actually doesn’t mean to not have any rough times in your life, but how you master those crises somehow. Sometimes we actually need a crisis to see what we weren’t able to see before and to understand things we didn't understand before.

What impact does the health of company employees have on the overall economy in Germany?

Kromm: Today we know that this type of mindful and supportive management style doesn’t just keep people healthier, but also improves financial figures. In our next study, we want to prove that this is very important to the profitability of a company. I am entirely convinced about this.

What kind of experiences were you able to gain in this regard in other countries?

Kromm: In the early nineties, I was at a Leadership Center delegation in Kiev. The Ukrainian Armed Forces wanted to get to know the principles of "leadership". The delegation leader, a German Admiral, wanted to talk with the young cadets. Our hosts at first didn’t understand why an admiral would want to talk with cadets. After some resistance, the meeting took place. Three hundred cadets entered the lecture hall. Our Admiral introduced himself and told them about himself. Then he said: “Now you get to ask me questions.” I will never forget the look on the faces of those young men! They couldn’t believe that someone of a higher rank met them at eye level. At that moment, I realized how easy it can be to show people respect and appreciation.
Photo: Michalina Chrzanowska; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

The interview was conducted by Michalina Chrzanowska and translated by Elena O'Meara.
MEDICA.de