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Shiny, Happy Workplace

California psychologists search for the mentally healthy workplace--and find it

By Mary Spicuzza

DR. SANDY RILLIE, co-founder of OMIX, says that her recent trip to Los Angeles to accept the company's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award was in some ways a mentally trying experience. OMIX, a Menlo Park-based Internet professional services company, may be filled with happy, healthy employees, but it's also surrounded by vanishing dotcoms and plenty of freshly vacated Silicon Valley office space.

"I have to tell you that this is really complicated right now," Rillie says. "We have been a pretty incredible little company. But we do Internet services, and we're feeling what everybody is feeling. There's just not a lot money out there right now."

Two days before she and her husband, OMIX co-founder Terry Rillie, left to accept their award at the March 31 California Psychological Association convention in Costa Mesa, Calif., they had to deliver some hard news to their employees. A massive, much-anticipated business deal had been canceled, leaving the 37-employee company hurriedly hunting for new clients.

OMIX, or as the company website explains, "OM for the spiritual and IX for the technical dimension," may be tiny, but it's Silicon Valley's sole winner in the statewide association's hunt for mentally healthy workplaces. It shares the honor with three other companies--Rogers Joseph O'Donnell & Phillips, a San Francisco law firm, San Diego's Cox Communications, and the Irvine Ranch Water District.

"We wanted to recognize those companies that go above and beyond realizing that mental health is just as important as the physical," the association's Jud Lyman says.

Besides the touchy-feely aspect of the awards, which debuted this year, the Psychological Association says that there are also bottom-line benefits to the mentally healthy workplace.

"As you know, constantly hiring and training employees is a very expensive process," the shrinks' press release cautions. "We believe that a psychologically healthy workplace is one of the best ways to reduce turnover and keep your valuable employees healthy, happy and productive."

The Lillies agree. They "believe that hierarchical organizations breed internal competition, making people unsatisfied and unhappy," the OMIX site reads. "So OMIX is organized in circles, not pyramids, fostering an atmosphere of mutual support instead of the usual scramble for higher positions."

The psychologists sent in for site visits insist they weren't just looking for espresso machines, masseuses, Kumbaya drum circles or other catchy gimmicks of the "new economy."

"That kind of stuff is interesting," Dr. Janet Hurwich, an Oakland-based psychologist who did several site visits, says. "It's attention getting, but it's not the heart of what makes a workplace healthy.

Site visitors say the four winners share common traits, like a quality company vision, employee involvement in decision-making, flexible hours, opportunities for extended leaves, and workshops or classes available for employee growth and development.

Dr. Jana Martin, a Long Beach shrink and Chair of Marketing for the association, adds that she looked carefully at company mission statements while making her decision.

"We looked not only at the company's mission statement, but whether employees were aware of it," Martin says. "Sometimes only the president knows there is one."

Even as Silicon Valley's lone mental health poster child fights for survival in the crumbling dot-economy, Sandy Rillie says that OMIX's employees are still rewarding them with loyalty. Meaning the mentally healthy office may not be an endangered Sili Valley species after all.

"Our people have helped us so much. Some have even offered to help us by working for free. I think that this time has been a reflection on our company too," Rillie says. "We really are a lot like a family. But a functional family."

The more dysfunctional office families needn't panic though. The next round of awards won't be for another year, leaving plenty of time for intensive therapy.

For more information on the California Psychological Association, go to www.calpsychlink.org.

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From the April 19-25, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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