How to rethink and rejuvenate culture for the post-Covid world

15 June 2021 5 min. read
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As business emerges into a post-Covid world, those that succeed will be taking organisational steps to improve their employee’s mental fitness, developing their cultures to enable fully vibrant organisations, writes Duncan Wardley, a partner at global human capital consultancy Heidrick & Struggles, and Amy Turner, a partner in Heidrick Consulting's Senn Delaney Culture Shaping Practice.

According to a survey of nearly 1,500 people by the Harvard Business Review, the vast majority of us are struggling with workplace well-being as the pandemic continues to rage. Some of the key predictors of burnout are an unsustainable workload, the absence of a supportive community, and the feeling that you don’t have control over your life and work. 

69% of people working from home are experiencing symptoms of burnout such as migraines from unawarely clenching their teeth, backaches from not having an appropriate workstation set-up at home and an increase in skin conditions like eczema.

Duncan Wardley and Amy Turner - Heidrick & Struggles

Then, there is the employee's mental health: a staggering 60% of adults and 68% of young people reported their mental health got worse in the past 12 months causing disturbed sleeping patterns and experiencing difficulty in ‘switching off’. 

Social distancing may have been the mantra of 2020 but it is not the case when it comes to social support. Humans are social creatures who crave connection with others, and removing that connection can actually be painful. A groundbreaking study by Matt Lieberman in 2003 showed that when we feel excluded from a group the same parts of our brain are activated as if we are in physical pain. This marked the beginning of the field of social cognitive neuroscience, which seeks to explore and understand human experience based on the ideas that humans are hardwired to think and operate in groups. 

These days, focusing on social inclusion is a key part of many organisations DE&I efforts, and there is much we can learn from psychology and neuroscience about how to address inclusion as well as wider aspects of mental fitness. 

The Job Demand | Control | Support Model

The Job-Demand-Control-Support model is a well-known theory that explains how job characteristics influence employees’ psychological well-being. The model has been the basis for much empirical research on psychological well-being for over 30 years and illustrates how an increase in workload (demand), coupled with reductions in autonomy (control) and social inclusion (support) can cause stress in employees.

Addressing each of these points directly can help support psychological well-being and each is an organisational, rather than an individual, responsibility: 

This is what the job entails of the team member. Our effectiveness to do our best work drops rapidly when we have too much demand loaded on. This part of the model is to get employers to look at different ways they could lessen the load on demand for them, and this means a focus on simplification. This is about reducing time demands and optimising for what is productive, not for what is easy (like more meetings). 

Other strategies for reducing demand include providing goal clarity – making it easier for people to set and understand strategy & goals; instigating short term planning cycles – helping people to plan & prioritise; and making decision making easy by introducing simple rules and decision making frameworks. 

Employees need to feel in control of their work lives. Even a perception of control reduces anxiety, expands cognitive processing and leads to more creative work. How organisations can increase the sense of control is to build psychological safety through the organisation. This can be done by adopting inclusive leadership behaviours, promoting curiosity, and by framing tasks as opportunities for learning. 

This is the social support the company gives staff. In practice this means placing more emphasis on creating peer support networks, and also a greater focus on team development which has been particularly challenging with virtual working. 

In a survey done by Boston Consulting Group during the pandemic, it showed that influence social connectivity has on productivity: employees who reported satisfaction with social connectivity with their colleagues are two to three times more likely to have maintained or improved their productivity on collaborative tasks than those who are dissatisfied with their connections. Together, employees can support, challenge each other and strive for greater performance. 

A future with potential

Most organisations have taken an “employee first” approach to the pandemic. By demonstrating concern, showing empathy, and sharing our own vulnerabilities, we have maintained or sometimes even strengthened our work relationships, and productivity and performance have improved for many. But organisations must not be complacent. With so many employees feeling such emotional exhaustion leaders must not fall into the trap of simply promoting more self care. 

Those that focus on the organisational changes needed to create thriving and vibrant cultures will be the winners in our post Covid-19 world.