Saving Money Without Reducing Human Sustainability

How do you balance cost-saving measures with human sustainability—helping employees become healthier, more skilled, and more connected to a sense of purpose and belonging—in your organization?

The sustainability of everything from a luxury resort to a city center is a huge topic of debate these days. I learned last week that there’s also “human sustainability” to strive for.

I saw a piece by Alan Goforth posted to the Website of ALM Benefits Pro, which notes that companies should be responsible for workplace well-being. It refers to “human sustainability” as being part of that concept: “Human sustainability is a way forward, but companies should step up their efforts. Organizations that are embracing this concept may be helping their employees become healthier, more skilled, and more connected to a sense of purpose and belonging, and they also can be supporting their suppliers and communities. However, although 89 percent of the C-suite say their company is advancing human sustainability, just 41 percent of employees agree.”

Cutting Staff Leads to Burnout

The question is how to make humans in the workplace, individually, sustainable. How do you avoid burnout? How do you reconcile the drive to keep costs down with the push for human sustainability? Those two ideals seem at cross purposes. Companies cut costs by reducing staff size, thereby increasing the burden on the remaining employees. That means an employee who may have found their job “sustainable” a year earlier suddenly finds that they’re working regularly until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. with no relaxation time. They feel it’s a new normal that can’t be sustained, so they either burn out, becoming disengaged and less productive, or they look for a new job.

Cons to Office Relocation

Another way companies reduce costs is by moving out of a conveniently located office space in favor of a new office space in an area that is not as easy to get to, but is much less expensive. Unless the move is coupled with the ability for all affected employees to work remotely, human sustainability takes a hit. An employee who may have had a simple 20-minute commute to the office suddenly finds it now takes more than an hour to get to work. Or maybe, if you’re in an area like New York City that’s walkable, some employees may have had the healthy habit of walking to the office, and now find they have to take a long subway or train ride to the office. The move has saved money, but has reduced employees’ quality of life, giving them a new routine that will be hard for some to sustain.

Salary Freezes and Extra-Long Flights

Another cost-saving move is a salary freeze in which no one gets even a cost-of-living adjustment. That puts financial stress on employees, which is hard to sustain from both a practical and emotional perspective.

When traveling for business, a company may put pressure on employees to choose the most inexpensive flight available, even if that flight comes with a layover. As silly as it sounds, that could mean choosing a flight from New York City to Atlanta or Orlando that comes with a stop in Chicago, or some other out-of-the-way place. The employee has to spend energy on a trip that takes hours longer than it would have been with a direct flight. Unnecessary expenditure of energy is a human sustainability reducer.

In fact, I can’t think of any cost-saving initiative that doesn’t reduce human sustainability. Can you?

Counterproductive Cost Savings

When making cost-savings decisions, companies need to ask: How will this cost-saving measure impact my employees’ quality of life? Decision-makers may find that the hit human sustainability takes means that the cost savings are counterproductive. The discomfort and stress it will cause employees is likely to result in reduced engagement, lower productivity, and turnover.

One thing I find ironic is the fact that many organizations that are undergoing strict cost-saving measures are not struggling mom-and-pop shops. That would be understandable and easy to sympathize with. Instead, they are large organizations generating millions, and sometimes even billions, of dollars per year—or even per quarter. When thinking about human sustainability, you also have to ask whether there’s a level of profit that’s ever enough, or if there’s a point where human sustainability becomes equally important.

How do you balance cost-saving measures with human sustainability in your organization?