How to Lead a More Human Workplace

A human workplace focused on employee well-being is crucial for maintaining and attracting top talent and setting people up for success. Here are eight ways leaders can create a culture where employees are healthy and happy.

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The pandemic’s wake shed a glaring spotlight on the need to rethink the way we work. Burned out and exhausted workers left their jobs in droves, creating work shortages across industries, and forcing employers to reevaluate what they offer employees. But benefits alone will not solve this crisis. Organizational culture must change, and that is driven by leadership.

This shift requires more than advocating people-first concepts or work-life balance. As a leader this looks like channeling people toward a common goal, suspending self-interest, and building connections. People deserve fulfillment and opportunity. In a word, happiness. 

Wisely, 81% of workers are looking for workplaces that mitigate burnout and stress.  

The U.S. Surgeon General, a leading public health authority, released its first report and framework for organizations with the intention that “workplaces can be engines of mental health and well-being.” It guides leaders to create a healthier and happier workplace, equating to a more engaged workforce. If you’re a leader interested in implementing changes to your workplace, here is the framework the report suggests can help inform your thinking.

What is a Human Workplace? 

What we need more than ever is a human workplace. (Imagine a professional space where compassion and vulnerability are paramount—literally making work more human.) The human workplace puts people and their well-being within an organization front and center. Leaders facilitate meaning and purpose in people’s lives, creating greater health and happiness in the workforce. The key components of a human workplace are that the workplace: 

  • Revolves around its people 
  • Considers the people’s needs
  • Aligns to the common good

A human workplace focused on employee well-being is crucial for maintaining and attracting top talent and setting people up for success. Workers desire employers that showcase a culture and value system committed to ethical business practices and workplace dynamics. They want to offer their value while growing and learning new skills, and allowing for flexible work options that manifest work-life balance.  

The U.S. Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being report found that many workers struggle with workplace stress across industries. 

  • 76 % of U.S. workers report at least one mental health condition 
  • 84% of respondents said workplace conditions contributed to at least one mental health challenge 

Burnout at work leads to less motivation and energy to live life outside of work, leading to stress on families, relationships, and individuals’ ability to be healthy and happy. Mental health conditions like  anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and substance dependence can also lead to increased turn over, disengaged employees, lower productivity and lack of innovation. Wisely, 81% of workers are looking for workplaces that mitigate burnout and stress.  

How to Transform Workplace Culture

When employees are healthy and happy, they perform better, and productivity increases. Business units with engaged workers provide 23% higher profits compared with units of unhappy workers. Organizations should make a commitment to meeting employee needs for financial, physical, mental and social health, along with enabling people with the skills they will need to succeed. The Surgeon General’s framework identifies five essential benefits resulting from a human workplace focused on mental health and well-being. Each essential is rooted in two human needs:  

  • Protection from Harm (safety and security): Workplaces that prioritize physical and psychological safety and that are free from fear of retribution provide a welcoming and inclusive culture and value diverse perspectives. This includes creating conditions for diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.  
  • Connection and Community (social support and belonging): Welcoming environments give everyone a voice. Workers can authentically cultivate trusted relationships for collaboration, teamwork, purpose, and alignment. 
  • Work-Life Harmony (autonomy and flexibility): Organizations demonstrate respect for their employees through equitable leave policies and boundaries between work and non-work time. Giving workers autonomy over their day provides the freedom to create flexible and predictable schedules, and maintain control over how, when, and where work is done. 
  • Mattering at Work (dignity and meaning): Building a culture of gratitude and recognition regardless of position. Employees find fulfillment and purpose when they see a direct connection between their individual work and the organization’s mission. They become more engaged when they are asked to participate in workplace decisions and are recognized for their contributions.
  • Opportunity for Growth (learning and accomplishment): Supporting workers’ growth and development by offering career advancement, training, feedback, and coaching creates loyalty and builds a sustainable workforce.

Overall, employees want a career journey that aligns their work with the flexibility to manage their personal lives and maintain a sense of overall well-being. 

The Role of Leadership 

You may be able to check all the boxes in the framework above, but you may not necessarily have a human workplace. To build happy human workplaces, leaders must ask themselves how they can help their employees achieve their personal and professional goals. Human workplace leaders provide their workforce with energy, challenge, and an opportunity to focus on helping the organization grow. 

To be a mature, purpose-driven leader that creates a welcoming, safe space for work-life harmony, the first step is to focus on developing yourself as a leader.

As the leader, you’re at the center of influencing culture. To develop high-performing teams, you’re responsible for helping people work in their optimal state, a state in which employees can reasonably maintain well-being both within and outside of the workplace. When contentment and work-life balance is the norm for your team, people  are more able to reach an optimal state of being, called the state of flow. Higher flow states are associated with greater happiness, creativity, motivation, and better emotional regulation, which equals greater productivity and innovation. This concept is in alignment with the Surgeon General’s framework for well-being.  

Emotional Intelligence in the Human Workplace 

Stand-out leaders that grow and move organizations forward are often known for their emotional intelligence. How you treat people can impact your success more than your technical skills. You’re managing other people to get the work done. You need the skills to communicate, persuade, motivate and inspire others. The good news is that these are learnable skills that teach us how to empathize with others and work together for the common good.

Psychologist and science journalist Dan Goleman popularized the emotional intelligence theory through a series of books, including best-seller Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than I.Q. Goleman suggests we can practice emotional intelligence through the development of intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, which include the following:

  • Self-awareness: Recognizing emotions when they’re rising within yourself.
  • Self-regulation: Practicing your emotional response to situations and circumstances.
  • Motivation: Knowing how to respond to your emotions constructively. 
  • Empathy: Feeling another person’s struggle and taking action. 
  • Social skills: Engaging with and relating to others.

Practicing and focusing on emotional intelligence will also help you operate from a growth mindset, which gives you a powerful skill to lead and solve problems within your workforce. 

Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset 

Leaders with a growth mindset believe their intelligence grows over time. They embrace challenges as learning opportunities for growth. They welcome feedback, and they relish the success of others. Leaders with a fixed mindset believe they are either born with intelligence or are not. They are less likely to view challenges as opportunities and are more likely to view feedback as a threat. A fixed mindset makes them defensive about their stance, which can shut down creativity and collaboration across the organization.   

A leader with a growth mindset can have a profound impact when engaging with others. When you are aware of how you interact with people, you open yourself up to other’s needs and views. You also shed light on your own biases.  

As a leader, you don’t have to bear the burden of making decisions on your own. When we come to a table, we all have biases and judgments, which can be very challenging for many people and may never go away. However, you can learn to notice bias tendencies within yourself and bring them up  to help make equitable, collective, and inclusive decisions. 

Embracing a growth mindset comes from looking within yourself. When confronted with a problem to solve, ask yourself “What do I believe in?” and “What else may be true?”. Take this opportunity to build connection, credibility, and loyalty with your teams.

Self-Care as a Leader

Leaders can practice physical and emotional health to develop a growth mindset and increase self-awareness. Physical health helps manage stress and burnout so our brains can fully function. It encompasses regular exercise, healthy eating, and adequate rest. Moving your body releases stress chemicals, helping you relax and sleep better. Good nutrition feeds your mind and body with energy, while sufficient sleep recharges your ability to focus.

Emotional health includes your ability to be self-aware and increase your levels of emotional intelligence. Connecting with nature and journaling are ways to tune into your day-to-day experiences and emotional states. Meditation is a way to reset and engage your brain. It equips you to optimize your critical thinking and makes you less likely to be stressed and unmotivated.

8 Tips for Leading a Human Workplace 

You can create a human workplace and an organization of well-being to make an impact on the people around you. To be a mature, purpose-driven leader that creates a welcoming, safe space for work-life harmony, the first step is to focus on developing yourself as a leader. 

Practicing self-awareness and looking deeply into your career journey can help you lead people on their own career journeys. By doing the following, you can create an equitable human workplace with safety and inclusion for all:  

  • Build respect and psychological safety
  • Create a shared sense of meaning 
  • Increase team innovation, creativity, and purpose 
  • Surround yourself with different perspectives 
  • Choose where to focus your attention 
  • Release attachment to your emotions 
  • Perceive challenges as opportunities for growth
  • Listen deeply 

When leaders focus on creating a human workplace, they give themselves and others the gift of flow. With a bit of practice and careful thought, you can create a culture that instills physical and psychological safety, growth, and connection, fostering work-life harmony. If you are open to seeing your own habits and patterns and how they impact your organization’s well-being, the potential to make a human workplace environment a reality becomes limitless, and its impact on everyone is overwhelmingly positive.

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