Blog: Why having a supportive ethical culture matters to employee wellbeing

Linn Byberg, Researcher

We’ve just celebrated Mental Health Awareness Week and with estimates suggesting that nearly 13% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health issues, more organisations are becoming aware of the need to support psychological as well as physical safety.

There is a critical link between employee mental health and working in an ethically supportive environment. The IBE’s 2018 Ethics at Work Survey finds that one in six employees in Europe (16%) say that they have felt some form of pressure to compromise their organisation’s ethical standards and that the number of employees experiencing this pressure has increased since 2015. As well as leading to unethical behaviour, this pressure can have a negative impact on employees’ mental health and wellbeing, particularly if it is felt over time. 

A supportive ethical culture is one where concerns can be raised, advice sought, authority questioned and decisions challenged without fear of repercussions. It is reflected in how psychologically safe people feel, a vital component of employee wellbeing. 

While organisations are beginning to focus on wellbeing, initiatives like adding green plants to the office space, offering weekly fruit deliveries and free yoga sessions only scratch the surface of what being well at work means for employees. Wellbeing will not improve if employees are under stress from targets, facing job uncertainty, working in a hostile or bullying environment, or forced to compromise on their own or their organisation’s ethical values. 

Improving wellbeing in the workplace, as with ethics, starts with leadership. Good mental health at work and good management go hand in hand and there is strong evidence that workplaces with high levels of mental wellbeing are more productive. That’s why it’s important that managers at all levels are trained in supporting those they work with. Research shows that managers who are trained to have effective and regular meetings with employees in a confidential manner and are sensitive to the challenges they may be facing both at work and in their personal lives, can help reduce work-related sick leave.  

Ethical management creates a psychologically safe work environment, where employees can raise concerns. As Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School says, psychologically safe environments have "a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up’’. It also has business benefits: Google conducted an in-depth four-year study into team performance with the key finding that psychological safety is the number one predictor of team success.

Sometimes incentive schemes have unintended negative consequences leaving employees to feel undervalued, pressured and struggling with their mental health. Our Ethics at Work survey shows there is a growing concern among employees that line managers reward staff who get good results, even if they use practices that are ethically questionable to achieve these results. Performance management that motivates and encourages employees to behave ethically can help create an open and supportive environment where ethical values take centre-stage. 

According to BITC’s Mental Health at Work Report, the main barriers for employees to tell their manager about a mental health concern are a reluctance to ‘make it formal’ (identified by 33%) and fears of negative consequences (29%). In order to improve these figures and encourage employees to be more open, managers must be given the training, tools and support they need to improve wellbeing at work. This is what we mean by a Speak Up culture; one where managers have the time – and the training – to listen to employees’ feelings and concerns, whatever they might be.

Employee wellbeing need not be a costly strategy involving bean bags, installing a juice bar or expensive away days. While these offerings can be nice employee perks, they do not get to the root of what wellbeing means. A work environment that is open, ethical, focused on values and where raising concerns is business as usual, will be a mentally healthy one. 

Posted: 08/07/2019

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