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Rise and shine

Caroline Whaley, co-founder of career coaching organisation Shine for Women, discusses how we can make the workplace more human, welcoming and successful for men and women alike

When we feel in control, we can grow, develop and become better people. It gives us the headspace to discover new things, find strengths we never knew we had and achieve so much more than we thought. Surely this state of mind is crucial for an effective working environment? An increasing focus on wellbeing in the workplace suggests a shift in the right direction, but can workplace stress and anxiety really be solved with table tennis and free pizza?

The pace and intensity of many workplaces is spiralling out of control. Employers are asking for more but offering less, more people are expected to work irrational hours, organisations are trying to please multiple stakeholders while combatting growing talent shortages. Throw in a massive dose of Brexit uncertainty and ambiguity, and it’s no surprise that 595,000 of us are suffering from workplace stress in the UK, according to the Health and Safety Executive. And that doesn’t include the number of people too worried about repercussions to report it.

Many big businesses are attempting to mask the issue through wellbeing initiatives such as free food or gym memberships – but this isn’t getting to the root of the problem, or addressing the reason behind the need for these additional wellbeing initiatives.

Again and again I meet people at the end of their tether. They’re stressed. They’re tired. They want something to change. More often than not, they’re women. Why? Because women tend to be more attuned to the culture of a business. I work with very senior women with big roles and big demands. These are smart and intelligent women – but recently we’ve started to see cracks appear.

Women are attempting to ‘just get on with it’: keep your head down, do your best, work harder and you will get there. Yet clearly, it isn’t working. We need to ensure we create the opportunities for women (and men) to become more self-aware about what’s really happening and provide them with the tools to deal with issues before the situation becomes deeply unhealthy for themselves and organisations.

But before we can solve the problem, we need to understand the toxins that can become endemic in an office: blame, stonewalling, defensiveness, contempt and flooding.

  • Blame
    This is where people or groups of people go on the attack and try to dominate. They single out those they want to subjugate, and can change the way an organisation thinks about them. It can be subtle but devastating.
  • Stonewalling
    When one person, group or department decides they no longer want anything to do with another, they might withhold information from those who need it and constantly cancel meetings. While this can be difficult for an individual, you can see how this would also be hugely detrimental to a business.
  • Defensiveness
    Sometimes people just don’t listen and jump to an aggressive defence of a position without considering why they’re doing so, or what impact it can have.
  • Contempt 
    It’s almost impossible to come back from a position where people or teams believe their counterparts are beneath consideration or worthless. It’s hard to imagine this attitude can become rampant in a business, but it can.
  • Flooding
    This is when one group or person systematically overwhelms others to meet a goal. An example might be an office move that would require a relocation.

When seen in black and white, it’s hard to believe that businesses really can be like this. It makes you wonder how anything can be achieved. But there are ways to overcome all these challenges.

It starts with setting the right values. When set at a senior level and enforced, they can help define the ground rules for the way people work. In their absence, you’ll quickly find that tribes form with their own poisonous ethics.

This is because different departments have clear goals and aims, which inform how they think. Sales will be aggressive and target driven. Marketing will be creative. Service teams may be problem solvers. Without a common set of values, they can fall into their own world and see others as ‘the enemy’. Equally, there needs to be enough space within these values for individualism.

But values are just the start – breaking down any embedded prejudices through empathy is equally important. Look for where the tensions lie – are they between men and women? Then get the respective groups into a room. Once there, each side can describe how they feel. The women may say they are outnumbered and feel judged as emotional. Men might respond by saying they’re often picking up work that others hand over. It’s amazing how this can calm situations quite quickly. I’ve watched people’s faces change as realisation dawns on them.

This activity also allows leaders to become more aware of what’s going on around them and in their teams – on a really human level. The topics brought up initiate real conversations about what’s really important. When we get to this level of humanity, people thrive, and so do organisations.

With that in mind, creating a more welcoming atmosphere in the workplace isn’t just ‘nice to have’, it’s essential. It’s important we call time on poisonous working environments – and make work more human. Human companies aren’t fluffy, they’re real. And successful.

About Sarah OBeirne

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