Positive workplace culture benefits employees and boosts the bottom line

Kate Hesson. Photo: supplied
Kate Hesson. Photo: Supplied
We now know that telling someone who is struggling or having a hard time to "harden up" doesn’t help them.

However, in the workplace it can be difficult to know how what else you can do. In her last Connections column, Sarah Cross noted many organisations are still in the dark about the importance of a positive workplace culture and how to execute it.

She likened it to the evolution of health and safety, which is now seen as best practice to have implemented and integrated into all organisational processes.

The cynics among us will perhaps say that is because of recent tougher laws. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA), organisations have a primary duty of care to provide a work environment that is without risk to health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable.

Directors and top managers can be held personally liable. To date, we have typically focused on reducing the risk of physical harm. However HSWA defines health as being both physical and mental.

You must have effective systems for protecting worker health, both physical and mental, from work-related factors.

To promote general health aligns to this legal emphasis, encompassing specific topics such as bullying and discrimination through to general wellbeing.

Having a positive workplace culture, where the wellbeing of staff is promoted and protected, is not only a legal obligation. It also improves your bottom line by enhancing productivity and reducing absenteeism.

A survey of New Zealand enterprises as part of the 2019 Southern Cross Health Society/ Business New Zealand Workplace Wellness Report found that in 2018, New Zealand lost 7.4million working days and $1.79billion due to worker absences.

This was up from 6.6million working days and $1.151billion of absences in 2016. This report is produced every two years so presumably these figures will have increased again due to the impact of Covid-19.

Essentially, a healthy workplace puts the health and wellbeing of its people at the centre of everything it does.

Understand the underlying drivers

Before you can manage a risk, you need to understand what causes it. People’s health and wellbeing is shaped by social, economic and environmental factors, including:

How businesses work and lead

  • Whether there is a culture of trust, good relationships and collaboration.
  • Clear systems and expectations around managing workloads that match the needs of you and your team.

The work spaces, environment and facilities provided

  • The physical conditions your people work in, the kind of work they do and how that affects their ability to make healthy choices.
  • Public acknowledgement of those that go above and beyond, showing gratitude and goodwill through giving back to your team with words and actions.

Individual lifestyle factors

  • What people bring to work from their homes such as how they eat and drink, health conditions, personal stresses, family issues.
  • What people bring to work from their communities, such as what they think and value, particularly if there are different ethnicities and religions in your team.

Managing the risks

Ideally you should always try to eliminate the risk but where that is not possible, you need to consider how to minimise it. Select the most effective controls that are proportionate to the risk and appropriate to your organisation.

Wellbeing also involves a level of self-responsibility. An individual’s commitment to it will vary greatly, so it is wise to offer a broad range of wellbeing opportunities to increase their participation.

Obviously, all of these things cannot be implemented overnight, so ask your team what would make the greatest difference to them. Don’t just presume you know.

Get to know your staff as people, not just employees showing a genuine interest shows you care. They are more likely to take responsibility and make good decisions when they know you are making an effort and they have been involved in the conversation.

Don’t forget your leaders

Organisations may have wellbeing measures in place for staff, but not always for their business leaders. Leaders often, by their nature, are looking out for others but not for themselves.

They can hesitate to put their own wellbeing into either strategic planning documents or management conversations with their board. This is not to say that boards are not supportive — they are there when things get tough, but not often in a proactive or forward-thinking manner.

The risk is that unless you have a high-functioning and well leader, your organisation will not be as effective as it could or should be. On top of what you have in place for your staff, consider how to help leaders with their wellbeing.

An open honest and supportive relationship with the board chairperson is helpful although it is beneficial to have a safety net of an independent network or mentor for leaders to tap into.

Sometimes issues around CEO performance and tensions between the roles of governance and management can cloud a chairperson/leader relationship. Leaders can often be a lonely role in an organisation so the chance to share and problem-solve with others in similar positions is crucial.

For leaders in smaller businesses, getting time away from work is a real barrier so it needs to be prioritised in their diaries.

So what of the above recommendations are you going to take up? You could make a bold move, like starting the next half of 2021 with a retreat focused on team-building and connection.

This discussion might seem new age and fluffy, but the research clearly shows that happy people are more productive people. High stress levels cause sickness, which costs money that could be better utilised elsewhere.

High staff turnover is a killer of momentum.

And then there are legal obligations under the HSWA to follow. It is in your best interests to do more than to expect your people to simply "harden up". Invest in the wellbeing of your team, your leaders — and yourself.

Of your team:

  • Set achievable demands for your people in relation to agreed hours of work. Tack office-wide leave days on to long weekends or close early some days.
  • Match their skills and abilities to job demands. Allow people where possible to work to their passions.
  • Support your team to have a level of control over their pace of work. Only have meetings when they are needed (even if they have been scheduled). Make meetings shorter than two hours.
  • Regularly revise planning, assessment and reporting systems to reduce unnecessary work.
  • Involve your team in decisions that may impact their wellbeing, and have processes to enable them to raise concerns they might have. Aim for good communications throughout your organisation.
  • Ensure managers and supervisors have the capability and knowledge to identify, understand and support their people who may be feeling stressed.
  • Provide your people with access to independent counselling services. They could also benefit from financial planning advice or discounted health insurance.
  • Have agreed policies and procedures to prevent or resolve unacceptable behaviour. Aim for the swift resolution of poor relationships before they become entrenched or affect more than a few individuals.
  • Engage and consult with your team before implementing change processes, and ensure they genuinely have the ability to influence the decisions you make. Make change occur at a tempered pace.
  • Reward your staff in ways they prefer. Shared morning teas and planned social events build a sense of belonging. Other rewards can encourage healthy lifestyles like nutrition-focused recipe books, discounted gym memberships or supporting your social clubs sports team.
  • Be a family first employer — a little give and take goes a long way.
  • Know the different cultures and religions in your team and promote inclusiveness, even in the staff tearoom.

Of your leaders:

  • Give leaders the same support as you give other staff, plus:
  • Encourage leaders to bank and use glide time for personal reasons to balance out extra work they do.
  • Consider regular professional supervision or mentoring for them.
  • Enable access to high-quality professional development/conferences.
  • Encourage a distributed leadership model to reduce CEO workload and encourage new people into leadership.
  • Allow them to spend time in other businesses — a lot can be learned by being in a fresh space.


  • Kate Hesson is director of Hesson Consultancy.

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