Many companies overlook the power that workplace culture can have on employee wellness and instead, focus relentlessly on financial metrics.
Since it began, the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified work-life challenges for many work from home employees as boundaries between work and home life became blurred. These difficult times highlighted the reality that we need to make a living, but also need to make sure that we are still “living” to avoid becoming burned out.
To address these challenges, many companies are increasingly focused on employee wellbeing and have associated a work-life imbalance with excessive work demands. Efforts to improve wellbeing include initiatives such as bring your pet to work day, wellness days, hiring consultants to coach staff on work/life balance, encouraging a healthy diet, and practicing yoga and mindfulness.
However, these approaches treat the symptoms of work-life imbalance and ignore the root causes of staff burnout. It is usually not work demands that result in burnout, but a lack of passion for what we do on a day-to-day basis, as well as psychological safety.
The Wall Street Journal notes that more than half of American employees are not content with their jobs. According to Gallup’s World Poll, 63% of the global workforce is “checked out” and “sleepwalking through their workday.”
Additionally, 78% of Americans are starting to report work-related anxiety and panic attacks, whereas 48% are actively seeking alternative job opportunities. In corporate America, there is a large discrepancy between what employees want from work and their actual work experiences. This discrepancy has created a workforce in which approximately 88% of workers lack passion for what they do every day.
Gallup’s World Poll found that the most common reasons employees are disengaged are due to lack of opportunity for development, not feeling connected to the company’s purpose, and not having a strong relationship at work. Loneliness has gone up by 300% in the United States alone.
Loneliness happens to have a comparable risk of mortality to obesity or having 15 cigarettes per day. According to Harvard’s Very Happy People’s Study, deep social connections have a 0.7 correlation with happiness at work.
Work-related stress and burnout are rooted from lack of passion for the work we do. Lack of passion often happens when employees are assigned projects and job tasks, not because it serves the greater cause but because it provides more revenue for the company. Over time, this lack of passion results in boredom and unhappy employees, who act out their unhappiness at work with their coworkers and those they serve.
Many companies overlook the power that workplace culture can have on employee wellness and instead, focus relentlessly on financial metrics. We human beings will never be part of those financial metrics.
We can only be part of the culture that is created for us. As a social species, a positive culture can be deeply soothing for our human body. It creates a sense of belonging and harmony with those we work with.
When we feel that we belong at work, we then feel our contributions have value and meaning. So many companies fail to understand that, regardless of their rank, their team is the biggest asset they have to help them achieve the financial metrics. Money or financial gains should not be the end results, but instead be a resource or fuel to get the company a step closer to achieving their mission.
Another cause of work stress and burnout is a lack of psychological safety. Perhaps the best way to explain psychological safety is through the circle of safety—an idea proposed by Simon Sinek. Leaders who create a circle of safety develop an environment in which people can work at their natural best.
Through this circle of safety, leaders nurture a positive work culture where employees feel safe to collaborate and develop a sense of belonging. This circle of safety is what gives birth to innovation, growth, and ultimately success for both the company and the employee.
Innovation requires risk, experimentation, and failure. If an employee fears they might lose their job or their place in the work community when they take a risk and fail, then chances are they will not take risks, leading to a lack of success for the company and the employee.
To ensure psychological safety, leaders have 2 responsibilities. First, they need to decide who should be included in their circle of safety. For example, when hiring, employees should be chosen to enhance the culture of the company, those who can be trusted, share, and support the company’s values.
Second, they need to make sure the circle they create expands to protect the safety of the most junior member of the company. The strongest companies are those with the biggest circle of safety.
Weak companies have a circle of safety that extends only to individuals in the executive suite. In other words, when the company fails to meet financial metrics, they first sacrifice the low-level managers to keep themselves safe.
With an expanded circle of safety, junior staff feel equally safe, invest their energy in work, trust their coworkers and managers, and cooperate against external threats. When the circle is expanded, the leadership sends a message that in times of adversity, we are all in this together.
It also sends a message that we will not sacrifice people for a financial gain, regardless of the difficulty of the external threat or competition. When the circle is not extended to protect junior employees, they shift their energy from innovating and cooperating to self-preservation, and ultimately, valuable employees will leave the company.
In other words, as a leader, you cannot demand trust, innovation, and cooperation, but you can create a culture that enhances trust, cooperation, and innovation.
The importance of psychological safety can be best explained through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a psychological theory of motivation proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943. His theory states that there are 5 categories of human needs that determine individual behavior: physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs.
As a humanist, Maslow believed that individuals are born with a desire to become self-actualized or to be all they can be in life. As you can see, our need for safety follows our immediate basic physiological needs. Physiological needs include protection, security, law, stability, and safety for our loved ones.
For humans to achieve their full potential in a company, basic psychological safety needs must be met first. If we look at these hierarchal needs in the context of working in a toxic work environment, instead of self-actualization, employees are worried about their safety and whether they are next in the line for mass layoffs if the company fails to meet financial metrics.
In essence, there is no balance between work and personal lives when we do not feel psychologically safe at work and are not working toward a higher cause. It is the responsibility of leadership to create a culture in which employees feel a sense of safety and belonging that can motivate everyone to work toward that higher cause.