• Author:Ben Jones
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Healthy workplaces: leaders need to set an example

Workplaces around the world are currently rightly focused on making sure they are COVID-safe, ensuing that every precaution is taken to rid their environments of dangerous bacteria, droplets of deadly virus and dodgy work surfaces. It’s all about masks, sanitiser and wipes. It’s all about social distancing. It’s all about the one-way system.

Of course, this is the right thing to do; it is vital work; but although it’s necessary, it is not sufficient. It will help deal with the current virus and provide some assurance to the millions of people being encouraged (and in some egregious cases, forced) back into offices, shops, factories and other workplaces up and down the country, but it will take a lot more effort, more focus, more leadership, more courage to deal with the most damaging, dangerous and deadly virus that afflicts the workplace. A disease that also takes lives; drains away self confidence; damages millions’ mental health; induces bouts of self loathing; destroys relationships and eats away at the health, wealth and wellbeing of the nations of the world.

I write of toxic, unhealthy, unkind and uncompassionate workplace cultures that have been bad for our health long before many of us had heard of Wuhan and started measuring two metres from each other and tutting when people entered our local corner shop without a mask. 

I have spent over twenty years working for, and within, dozens of organisations throughout the UK and around the world, including some of the biggest, best-known and best-loved household names. I’ve worked in the private, public, third and academic sectors, with organisations of all shapes and sizes. I have directly managed teams from one to one hundred, worked for a wide range of bosses with diverse backgrounds, philosophies and approaches and been part of workplaces at the forefront of their industries. I have been coached and coached many people. I have seen a fair bit in the workplace, including some inspirational leaders and examples of brilliant practice, but sadly much of what I’ve seen and experienced has been disappointing. Bitterly disappointing. 

Much has left me cold. Some of it played a part – a small part – in my own breakdown in which my relationship with work and the culture of my workplace contributed to my loss of confidence, energy and health. This experience – the trauma of my breakdown and the related issues it exposed – are part of my story and part of my everyday life, even now, years later. I don’t blame my issues, or even a large part of them, for my fall but they are part of my story in the same way they are part of the story of people I meet and talk to every day.

One of the most uplifting and humbling things that has happened to me in recent years is the number of people who reach out after reading my blog, hearing me speak or meeting me and finding something in my story that speaks to them. They disclose their experiences. They tell me about their relationship with their workplace. They talk about their struggle to achieve a healthy work-life balance, their desire to change their lives and how hard that is to do.

Every individual story is just that: their own experience, their unique journey and their own personal thing. But every story that I’ve heard has the same undercurrent, the same underlying issue. They all face – to a greater or lesser extent (the former being the most common) – the same barrier to making healthy changes; the same challenge; the same problem. Their boss.

This is not an attack on managers, heads of teams, directors, chief executives, COOs or chairs of boards. These people often reflecting a workplace culture that they themselves are victim too and sometimes trapped within. But – and it is a big but – they also present the single biggest opportunity to change culture and help people improve their lives and in some cases to save lives.

I cannot overstate the importance of leaders and leadership in building or dismantling unhealthy workplace cultures. The boss – whether of the small team you work within or as the FTSE 100 managing director of the 100,000 person wheel you are small cog within – sets the tone for others to follow. The boss determines how others are expected to behave. The boss leads by example (whether they mean to or not). The boss sets the culture.

To have a workplace that is toxic culture-safe as well as COVID-safe the boss must do three things:

  • Treat people with respect – this includes saying please and thank you; offering more than instructions and direction but also feedback (positive and constructive); be explicit with their team members, asking them what they want to achieve and their goals and aspirations and regularly talking about how you can help them to achieve them; never, ever threatening them or raising their voice; never, ever commenting on their appearance or how tired they look;
  • Respect boundaries – this includes no out of hours emails and calls/messages unless absolutely necessary; agreeing clear expectations on working hours and work patterns (including presence in the workplace) in advance of working together – this includes their own hours and patterns and checking in regularly on these if they change/need to change; remembering that work is just that – it’s work – not personal/home and they should limit their discussions of these things, unless invited, to pleasantries; keep it professional at all times, this includes drawing inference about their work/performance on previous information about their health – respecting boundaries is also about not making assumptions/thinking they think is happening in someone’s life – if it’s relevant and they need to know, then they should ask!
  • Share the credit, take the blame – being a leader means everything that goes wrong in their team/in the name of their team is their fault and everything that goes well should be credited to the team and a team effort – that’s the leadership deal – that’s why the boss is paid more/have the office/the status/the car parking space/the extra autonomy etc. Standing in front of your team provides them with a feeling of safety, security and trust; it helps them to challenge; to be creative and to take risks; and more importantly it takes away one of the biggest worries in the workplace – that at the first sign of a problem you will be blamed, disciplined or sacked. The prevalence of a blame culture is one of the ugliness aspects of toxic working environments and is sadly something I have seen far too often – driven so, so often by the boss and their insecurities and personal survival at all costs mentality. As the boss, the buck stops with you – for everything.

In short, the boss must set an example. They must be a role model. They must be a leader. Of course the employee needs to play their part and – as I have written many times before – make the right choices for them – but the biggest workplace barrier to making changes are the restrictions placed on you by your boss, often on behalf of the organisation. This is not about human resources policies but in being a human resource and treating those around you in the way you would want to be treated. And it is not enough just to be kind and sensitive towards the needs of your team – you must also demonstrate positive culture is how you treat yourself. Respecting the boundaries of others is great but not if you are working 24/7 and sending a message that the only way to become the boss is to work in a way that would stretch your emotional elastic band to breaking point and beyond.

Their failure to do this doesn’t just hit the bottom line or the hitting of KPIs or government targets – in some cases it won’t even impact on these things – but it can ruin lives. Being a leader in an organisation is as much about the mental health and wellbeing of your teams than the health of the balance sheet.

The impact you can have – positively and negatively – as someone’s boss is huge. It really matters that you think about the people you manage and talk to them about what they want out of their role; how they work best; what you can do to help them; and then remember they are not machines to be fed more and more work but human beings who need to rest, time and space to recharge and need and deserve respect.

Tragically COVID is killing people now around the world and until we get a vaccine it will continue to kill people and destroy families. The same is true of toxic working cultures and the link with premature death, stress-related illness and suicide. The different here is that the ability to vaccinate against it lies in large part with the boss. S(he) can make all the difference. By setting an example. By being kind and compassionate. By being a real leader. By giving people space and time to make different choices when work has become or is becoming too big a part of their lives. By being a person.