Inclusion is the wave of the future for workplace culture

| April 7, 2021

We’re at a pivotal moment for workplace wellness. The past year presented the intersecting crises of burgeoning national socio-political unrest in response to racial injustice and international health equity challenges exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This public reckoning has created new opportunities and an increased demand for organizations to address systemic disparities that shape employee experiences inside and outside the workplace.

This includes attending to employees’ well-being in ways that are responsive to their personal experiences of social inequities, more accommodating of familial commitments and respectful of work/personal life balance, and reflective of the destigmatization and prioritization of mental health.

While this can start to sound like a laundry list of new responsibilities for conscientious organizational leaders, it all hinges on one crucial imperative: an inclusive workplace culture.

Workplace culture says it all…and does it all

What is workplace culture? In short, it’s the synergy of shared values, belief systems, attitudes, and sensibilities among co-workers. A positive culture inspires invested, engaged, dedicated employees. In contrast, a negative culture can create a toxic workplace and often fosters the spiral of problematic behaviors and dysfunctional organizational dynamics that make a place miserable and unproductive to work in. So what’s the secret to achieving the former and avoiding the latter?

Human resource experts can pinpoint specific characteristics of a strong workplace culture. For example, global strategic employee recognition and reward consultants at The O.C. Tanner Institute find that a positive workplace culture boils down to six aspects: fostering purpose, opportunity, success, appreciation, well-being, and leadership among staff. Insights from data analyzed by the workplace consultancy firm Emtrain reflect that dealing with unconscious bias,
maintaining equitable power dynamics, and leveraging social intelligence are key indicators shaping workplace culture. Likewise, a healthy workplace culture tends to depend on the daily presence of respectful leadership, transparent communication, and clear, equally applied performance standards where everyone is held similarly accountable. Crucially, focusing on developing an inclusive culture will also help an organization achieve all these attributes.

A toxic workplace, on the other hand, comes about when power imbalances resulting from hierarchical managerial structures and social inequities related to gender, race, and sexual orientation are allowed to run rampant. Every organization has the potential to become toxic when quantities of suffering, inequity, and disrespect flow liberally. This sounds terrible and perhaps extreme, yet it’s easy for it to happen because these problematic dynamics simply mimic those pervasive in broader society. Racial unrest in the United States and the global public health crisis around COVID-19 have brought these dynamics into focus, calling on organizations to do better in the face of systemic social injustice and calling out leaders who don’t rise to the urgency of this occasion by making a real and lasting commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity.

A positive, inclusive culture starts with leadership

Because inclusion starts (or stalls) with leaders, it’s crucial that leaders take this opportunity to reinforce or launch more effective ways of addressing systemic disparities and inequities. The first step in inclusive leadership is diving deep into the data to understand the inequalities and disadvantages within their specific employee population. Next, leaders must reflect on how to support the most marginalized employees and be sure to hold those employees at the center of their planning moving forward. At this point, leaders must make firm decisions about what to keep doing, stop doing, and start doing to ensure that this pivotal cultural moment becomes a positive turning point leading to more deeply implementing diversity, inclusion, and equity in their organizational culture.

Inclusion is the gift that keeps on giving

It’s well-established that inclusive companies function better and are more successful in terms of business outcomes, but, perhaps even more importantly, positive workplace cultures are associated with employee satisfaction, retention, and well-being. Inclusive leadership facilitates a sense of belonging for employees and makes them feel uniquely valued and appreciated, safe to express themselves, and personally empowered to work to their full potential.

This is especially important as workers increasingly rely on employers for emotional support–research shows that 90% of employees admit to performing better when their company supports their emotional wellness. And the sense of human connection that is fundamental to an inclusive culture is exactly what employees say they need to feel supported. Ultimately, inclusion underpins successful teamwork, where workers feel comfortable, connected, and have a strong sense of contributing to meaningful outcomes, boosting morale and making their jobs a more satisfying aspect of their lives.

While some stressors undoubtedly originate outside the workplace, employees are human beings whose experiences of distress, grief, or trauma aren’t compartmentalized. When a workplace culture isn’t inclusive, oppression endured both inside and outside the workplace takes an inevitable toll on mental health, disparately impacting and further marginalizing people of color, women, and LGBTQ community members. A truly inclusive workplace is proactive,
dedicated, and adaptive to all employees’ emotional needs, necessarily and appropriately maximizing support to those who need it most and thereby motivating attendance, offering refuge, and even enhancing health. Indeed, employees with a strong sense of belonging take 75% fewer sick days than those who feel excluded.

The fact that thriving employees tend to do their jobs better and with more impact makes it a true win-win. The benefits to both individual employees and organizational objectives reach beyond inclusion as a workplace paradigm and reflect the ethical imperative of intersectional
equity in broader society.

Commit to an inclusive culture now

With daily face-to-face workplace interactions largely disrupted for the time being and potentially scaled back for the foreseeable future being intentional and strategic about fostering a connected, positive, inclusive workplace culture is more important than ever. As we figure out what the new, post-pandemic normal may look like and our needs around work-life balance and other aspects of workplace wellness continue to evolve, we must embrace an increasing emphasis on gender equity and acknowledge that flexible work structures accommodating family life are fairer and more productive. At the same time, the prioritization of mental health and a commitment to social justice are no longer understood as individual, personal or private political views but are now a standard by which current and prospective employees evaluate the immediate and long-term desirability of their work environments.

Luckily, this is not something that any organizational leader needs to figure out alone–experts in leadership development are here to help you assess your company’s needs, make a solid plan, and take the tangible next steps to ensuring that you and your organization are not left behind as we all move into our brighter, more inclusive future.

How does your business support employees’ mental health?

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