While it is now common for workplaces to strive for workplace well being, the role of culture is sometimes overlooked. In reality, workplace wellness programs including gym memberships, step challenges and flu vaccinations pale into insignificance when compared with the effects of workplace culture on the well being of staff.
What is a mentally healthy culture?
Here we’re not talking about a workplace that recognises and supports people with mental illness. That is important in its own right and has been discussed extensively by beyondblue and others. Instead we are talking about a culture that supports everyday ongoing health for all employees – the 20% or so who may have mental health issues but also the 80% who have no mental health issues but who can still find their wellbeing, and satisfaction with life, significantly affected by a poor workplace culture.
We define a mentally healthy culture as an honest, open environment where conflict, workload and stress are actively managed and not ignored or allowed to fester. Openness and honesty are important because a “high trust” culture can only be created if people believe that what they are being told is the truth and that there are no hidden agendas. It is this kind of environment in which people perform at their best.
Active management of conflict and stress means firstly monitoring and assessing how much of it is occurring. Second it means consistency – leaders modelling the behaviours that will lead to low levels of unhealthy conflict and stress. Thirdly, it means taking action when conflict or stress are becoming unhelpful.
It is important to note that both conflict and stress can be good in the right context and the right amounts. Conflict over a task (rather than a relationship), where two people in a team debate the right way to do something, is shown to lead to better outcomes overall. And “good” stress is the rush of adrenaline you feel when presenting a big new idea to a client or the excitement of working with a team to achieve a goal. Without some stress in our lives we quickly become bored and unmotivated. But we have all experienced times when those helpful and motivating conflict and stress situations slide into unhealthy negativity, anxiety and a feeling of being overwhelmed.
As a leader, how do you monitor the levels of conflict and stress and how do you tell when they are becoming unhealthy?
Look at data that already exists. You will probably find that you have information about turnover, EAP data and customer complaints and satisfaction scores.
If you don’t already, start running surveys of employees. These can be engagement or culture surveys and can be formal or informal. In a small organisation you might do this via one-on-one “fireside chats”. If you need a third party to be involved you can get team and organisational assessments done by an external provider which can not only survey employees but also interview them in depth and provide commentary and advice.
Really listen to individuals who come and talk to you. Making the effort to talk to a leader can be daunting and so when someone talks to you about an issue it often signals the tip of hidden iceberg. Take notice!
As a leader, how can you change an unhealthy culture?
This is the million dollar question and it does not have an easy answer, nor will a one-size-fits-all approach work for every company. However, a few things that are necessary ingredients are:
Buy in from the top. If the top management (including the board) don’t see the cultural change as necessary and model it themselves then no-one else in the organisation will believe you are serious.
Buy in from middle management. Although it’s essential for top management to buy in, most culture is set by the daily interactions between people at middle management and front-line levels. If middle management doesn’t fully engage with the culture change, the lives of workers in the organisation won’t change much.
From top management throughout middle management, everyone needs to put the culture change into practice in their own lives. One practice that can make a big difference is managers modelling good work/life boundaries – not overworking or taking work home and giving themselves the time to experience stress relief. A second practice is implementing a no-blame culture which focuses on learning rather than punishment for mistakes. When managers do this themselves and expect it of their people it can significantly reduce the conflict and stress in their workplace.
Clarity of communication. Make sure that expectations are very clear. For example, rather than just naming “respect” as a value, try to be really specific and outline the actual behaviours that are represented by this value. For example: “Having a respectful culture means that we expect that no-one will speak badly about a colleague or their performance either internally or externally except via official performance reviews and 360s”
Taking visible action on bad behaviour. Bullying and harassment are hugely costly and when they are notified but not acted on promptly, workers make the inference that this behaviour is culturally tolerated. Bad behaviour must be acted on and made a performance issue that is just as important as financial or operational targets. Follow through by refusing to pay bonuses to people who don’t live the culture and in extreme cases, make it a performance issue that could lead to termination.
Culture change can take years, not months or days. Having a focus and goal for the culture and sticking with it for the long-haul is essential.
The bottom line
By being honest and transparent with people, while also caring about their welfare, you create a culture of trust. Your employees will feel that they know where they stand and that they too can be honest and open about themselves. This is a guiding step towards a mentally healthy workplace and will have positive effects for individuals and the organisation that last for years.
credit Dr Jenny George