Why culture matters when it comes to workplace stress

18 May 2018
Mental Health Awareness

As we get towards the end of a Mental Health Awareness Week focused on Stress, we thought we’d pause to think about the importance of organisational culture, and how values can help in ensuring the wellbeing of the workforce.

First off, to get this right, companies need to have a wellbeing strategy in place and ensure the genuine buy-in of the most senior people.  Which is easy to say, but much less easy to do; many HR specialists – even those who work in the most sophisticated organisations – admit that they are struggling to get this in place.  Work to do, therefore… 

Then the culture needs to be supportive.  According to Great Place to Work, ‘organisational culture is critical to wellbeing, as a culture where people feel trusted, valued and respected, will in itself engender feelings of wellbeing. Organisations where the culture is poor are more likely to suffer lower levels of wellbeing so, whilst wellbeing programmes are important, they will be less effective if the organisation’s culture is poor. The average UK organisation has wellbeing scores of just 53% compared to 84% at best-in-class organisations like the UK’s Best Workplaces, whose cultures are more positive and supportive.’ 

Compelling evidence indeed.  However, although most organisations have values, most do not live and breathe them – thus failing to achieve their desired culture.  According to the Harvard Business Review, one major study identified that only 23% of U.S. employees ‘strongly agree’ that they can apply their organisation’s values to their work every day, and only 27% ‘believe in’ their organisation’s values.  Why?  There are probably a number of causes.  Lip service has to rank highly in the list of reasons why people are sceptical about the company values – seeing senior people behave in a way which is utterly at odds with what they say is important is guaranteed to undermine the culture.  But in addition to this, values which are incongruent or contradictory can make them less effective, if not meaningless.  Spencer Stuart has identified that the two most popularly held values fall into the categories of ‘caring’ and ‘results orientated’, with most companies aspiring to be both.  Their research indicates that people can find this combination confusing, especially when it comes to decision-making – which has priority?  Take a situation in which a business-critical employee, fulfilling an important project, is suffering extreme negative stress with the deadline looming.  What does their manager do?  To reduce the pressure and maybe even suggest that the employee takes time off would be ‘caring’ but would run contrary to ‘results orientated’.

So how do you get it right?  Here’s a checklist:

  •  Ensure you identify the right things, and prioritise them.  The values should outline, in your own language, what makes you different and special – and be an integral part of delivering on the vision.  One critical component of this must relate to the wellbeing of your people.
  • Involve people in the design of the values and rigorously test them, checking for congruence.  This not only makes them more robust, it also secures commitment.
  • Make people at all levels accountable for living the values – especially at the leadership level.
  • Help everyone in the organisation understand what living the values will mean for them in their day-to-day lives, and especially when it comes to dealing with colleagues.
  • Re-design any systems or processes which encourage opposite behaviours.
  • Make sure that the values drive honesty – the inevitable odd slip-up needs to be acknowledged and dealt with appropriately.  Humility is key.

And in case anyone reading feels this may be nice for people but bad for business, the commercial power of values – carefully designed, articulated, embedded and lived – is indisputable.  A comprehensive study based on more than 1,000 firms in the Great Places to Work database revealed a strong positive correlation between corporate financial performance and the extent to which employees believed their company’s espoused values were practised.  It is a business imperative – as well as a guaranteed way to help reduce negative stress.

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