The New Science of Workplace Culture

The Science of Workplace Culture

September 1, 2016

Consider the negative impacts of the “stress hangover,” social exclusion and the importance of taking time for yourself.

Every company has a distinct personality, complete with its own values, traditions, attitudes and behaviours. This workplace culture defines how employees at all levels feel and interact together at work. Today more than ever, culture defines the success of an organization. HR professionals are increasingly thinking about how to develop, grow and support a robust and attractive corporate culture.

The most sophisticated professionals are adopting a strict evidence-based approach. Old and unsubstantiated beliefs are being tossed out and new practices are being adopted. Call it Human Resource 2.0. An enlightened corporate culture is data-driven and draws heavily on science to direct its evolution. In the lush surroundings of the Toronto Botanical Garden, attendees of the June 2016 Your Workplace Conference were privy to some of these new perspectives in HR. Speakers presented a series of presentations that covered the latest in evidence-based HR thinking.

Looking fresh and lively in an appropriately floral print dress, Vera Asanin, President and Publisher of Your Workplace, described how the company gives employees their birthday off as a paid holiday as one strategy for maintaining employee engagement. But it has become more than just a paid day off — employees must spend the same number of hours that they normally work bringing him or herself joy.

“There is a real benefit to having time just for oneself. One thing we didn’t want to do was give [employees] time to do errands. We encourage our employees to make plans to celebrate,” said Asanin. Her research found that those who used the time to celebrate experienced a greater level of joy and well-being. “Has life gotten so busy with fulfilling commitments and taking care of family that we have forgotten how to have fun and be kind to ourself? Take a minute and think about what brings you joy. We have learned from our team that a quick answer is not always forthcoming. For just one day a year, we nudge people toward taking ownership for the joy in their life. Create your own agenda instead of being part of the goal of others,” said Asanin. “We know that a workplace cannot exist without its people.

By taking the time to imagine your workplace and what you want it to be, you can create a better workplace.”

The morning presentations at the conference, consisting of a series of “lightning talks” designed to offer rapid-fire bursts of information, offered solid advice for promoting a healthy workplace culture. Sara Ross, whose energetic presentation kicked off the event, works as the Head of Innovation, Research and Training at The Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP).

Conventional wisdom on the issue of workplace stress has long been that employees work better under pressure. “Unfortunately, this is not what the research finds,” says Ross. Consulting scientific studies, Ross claims it is far more efficient to have employees work at a fair pace rather than to put them under undue stress. “It’s hard to stay connected to the big picture and grant others grace when you are under pressure. It’s not that we’re unmotivated. But it is true that there are impacts from time pressure,” says Ross.

As anyone in the workplace today can attest to, the pressure to do more with less has increased over the last five years. Referring to basic findings in science, Ross notes that, “Pressure changes us physiologically. Our neuronal responses shift as the stress hormone cortisol is released, which quickens us and puts us in a state of high alert. Sure, when you’re under time pressure you get more done, but does great work get achieved?” Not really, it turns out. “We get focused on the small, mundane details and we miss the big, important things. We start to mistake activity for creativity. We get so focused on getting things done that we miss the bigger picture,” she says. “Being under pressure creates a ‘hangover effect.’ [Because of the heightened stress of delivering this presentation today,] tomorrow will be less creative and productive.”

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Ross referred to research produced at Princeton in 1973 known as the Good Samaritan study. Seminary students were observed walking by a man in obvious need. As they were not under pressure, 63% of the students stopped. When students were told they were running late, far fewer stopped to help the distressed man. “Under pressure we lose the ability to see what other people need from us. Time pressure creates a disconnection between actions and values. We are asking people who are drained of energy to be empathetic. But as our cortisol goes up our empathy goes down. We are not setting people up to be successful by putting them under pressure. Without enough resources, pressure robs us of the ability to do work,” says Ross. She hopes this research will kick-start a conversation around the issue of time pressure at work.

Another aspect of culture where employees can feel negativity at work revolves around whether or not the employee feels like an accepted part of the workplace culture. Dr. Jane O’Reilly from the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa has conducted extensive research and specializes in the subject of inclusiveness.

The heart of her presentation dealt with an emerging issue: exclusion in the workplace. “It is easy to recognize when someone is being harassed or belittled, and we often assume that ‘simply’ being left out is comparatively innocuous,” said O’Reilly. “But being excluded can be a psychologically painful experience. In some cases the negative impact of social exclusion is even worse than the outcomes associated with harassment.”

Examples of social exclusion include starting a meeting before a certain person arrives, with the manager saying something like, “We didn’t think it mattered if we started without you.” Or maybe it is a case where a conversation stops and everyone moves away when a particular employee steps into the room. Yet again, imagine a few colleagues going out for lunch and not inviting others who work around you.

“Employees express very negative thoughts such as ‘I feel a sense of sadness.’ Sometimes they think they’re imagining it because it’s so subtle,” O’Reilly explained. When a socially excluded employee brings this up sometimes the manager thinks ‘You’re not here to make friends.’ But we are programmed to need a sense of belonging. When we’re excluded, the areas of the brain that light up are the areas associated with pain.”

Studies performed at UBC have found the effects of social exclusion to include lower commitment to a job, lower levels of job satisfaction and an increase in physiological symptoms such as headaches or psychological withdrawal. “When we followed up with employees who had been socially excluded we found that 27% were more likely to leave the job within three years,” says O’Reilly.

How can employees in the workplace encourage inclusion? Offer small gestures such as saying hello or inviting someone to lunch. “That makes employees feel included. We need people in leadership roles to take an active prescience in terms of creating inclusivity,” says O’Reilly.

Work culture is not just how we work and how we treat others, it also includes the physicality of working. Jana Mareckova, an executive with KEYS Job Centre, discussed a program based on the fascinating study around the benefits of standing rather than sitting for long periods of time at work. “It can be viewed as an occupational hazard,” says Mareckova. “A growing body of research indicates that sitting for long periods of time has negative effects on health — it is the new smoking.” Getting up several times a day to take a short walk or even working while standing up at specially designed desks can do much to limit the damage of all-day sitting.

To facilitate a shift away from a ‘seated culture’, Mareckova explained that the leadership at KEYS, “…changed our organizational culture and inspired employees to think differently about sitting and moving. We had to encourage more moving and stretching. We started with a fun activity — the ‘stand-up challenge.’”

An education program ensued about the negative effects of sitting and what an employee can do to counteract these effects. Tips were provided to try the new program for one week. Although employees were not mandated to walk, “they would be supported by leadership if they got up and moved around,” says Mareckova. “I used to feel that I was interrupting things by standing, but in fact you can participate just as easily standing, as sitting.”

Imagining a Culture of Engagement

Socially inclusive and engaged employees are beyond being satisfied with their job; they actually want to — and do — improve business results. So how does one engender that engagement? Bill Jensen, CEO of The Jensen Group, a research company, shares a rather disheartening fact: just 10% of people feel they can achieve their dreams where they work. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and how we can change this perspective,” said Jensen. “There is a creative tension between what’s good for the company and what’s good for me.”

How do we examine how people can achieve their dreams and goals at work? How can we get something out of serving the customer and the company? “It all comes down to choices that we make and making a ‘future strong circle of choices’,” says Jensen. “The number of minutes in a day is 1,440 and that is never going to change. Choose wisely how you are going to spend those minutes.”

One must be clear-headed to make good choices and this falls flat in the face of rising mental illness claims. According to statistics from Homewood Health Inc., a major treatment centre for those suffering from mental health and addiction issues, there are 500,000 people missing work daily, many for mental health issues. The number of people who commit suicide in Canada each year is about 4,000.

Darren Harris, Vice-President at Homewood Health, states that it is the HR professional who links employees to the services that can potentially save their lives. Helping an employee access appropriate programs and then make a positive shift back to the workplace is a delicate but important function. “Making these transitions successfully is a big part of providing an enlightened workplace culture,” says Harris.

Reabsorbing a worker back into a workplace is a tricky, fraught process. The Conference Board of Canada reports that the number of employees who are worried about disclosing mental health cases is 54%. Typically employees feel it would impair and impact their ability to do well at the company if they disclosed such issues (compared with 72% of Canadians who would talk about cancer). So there is a reluctance to share knowledge of a break from work caused by mental distress.

However, there is a growing belief that it might be appropriate, after a conversation with the employee, to let those in the workplace know why that person had been away. Part of this response is about getting over the stigma that is still attached to mental health issues. “Stigma is alive and well… . If we can’t talk about these issues, there’s always going to be stigma,” says Harris. The message is a deeply affecting one that makes clear the progress yet to be made in terms of creating a healthy and progressive workplace.

Making sure employees aren’t under undue expectation is part of developing a sustainable and resilient workplace culture. It is only with a focus on evidence-based scientific approaches to HR that these challenges to the workplace can be discovered, addressed and treated. Companies continue to battle for the best and most talented workers who feel included and supported in the workplace culture. These are the kinds of factors that allow one company to outperform another.

At the end of the day, as it was at the end of the conference, you must be ready and willing to consider these ideas as a way to support the amazing workplace that you have imagined.

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Jeff Sanford
Jeff Sanford has worked as a journalist for more than 15 years, and has held staff positions at some of Canada's leading business publications including Canadian Business and National Post Business magazine.

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