Stress bust your workplace culture

12 May 2018

This article was featured in the June 2018 issue of the magazine.

Robert Ordever, managing director of O.C. Tanner Europe, argues that investing in your culture really does pay off

Stress is a huge workplace issue that is costing the UK economy approximately £15bn ( However, some workplaces are far more stress-inducing than others. Organisations that are ‘drains’ rather than ‘radiators’ will breed resentment and anxiety, struggle to attract talent and have a high turnover of staff. If this sounds all-too familiar, it’s time to face-up to the harsh reality of your culture and take steps to turn your company’s ‘toxic’ environment on its head.

Of the 31.2 million working days lost in 2016/17 (, 25.7 million of these were due to stress, depression or anxiety. Recent research by The O.C. Tanner Institute also found that 45% of UK workers admit their jobs are creating a great deal of negative stress in their lives with the UK being the third most-stressed nation behind India: 51%, and Germany: 48%.

As not all workplaces are created equally, some organisations will be far more stress-inducing than others. Toxic cultures will typically instil a survival-of-the-fittest mentality into its staff rather than encouraging teamwork. They will permit criticism of others, game playing and politics and will be tightly controlled by management, discouraging collaboration and advocacy. There will also be an overriding feeling of distrust and staff will be terrified of failure, thereby stifling the organisation’s creativity and innovation.

In negative cultures, people may start to compromise their own ethics and values, acting in a way that would normally be ‘out of character’. Such cultures can even facilitate morally questionable and illegal behaviours: the Enron scandal in 2001, the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015 and the USA cycling doping ring lead by Lance Armstrong, for instance, were ‘allowed’ to happen due to their toxic environments.

How do you go about ‘stress-busting’ a damaged culture? Transforming a stressful culture into a calmer and happier place to work is a significant undertaking requiring buy-in from the top and a commitment to change.

Based on global research by The O.C. Tanner Institute, here are six key ways an organisation can nurture a positive, engaging and less stressful environment:

  • Have a clear organisational purpose – Stress can develop when people feel out of control. If the organisation lacks focus and direction, any feelings of stress will be exacerbated, which is why a clear organisational purpose is so important. Understanding a company’s vision, how it’s positively affecting change and how each person fits into the ‘bigger picture’ will help staff to feel more in control.

  • Provide opportunities – Ensure staff are given a range of opportunities to feel empowered, learn new skills and have a voice. This will nurture a more caring, respectful and collaborative environment.

  • Shout about your successes – Employees need to know they’re on a winning team as this promotes positivity. Staff who don’t feel pride in their organisation will lack a strong connection with their work colleagues and place of work and will be more prone to negativity.

  • Invest in strong leaders – Stress is often brought-on by poor leaders who enjoy being ‘the boss’, giving orders and taking credit. This leads to anxiety, distrust and low morale. The best cultures have leaders who give credit and encourage mentorship, trust, shared responsibility, collaboration, comradery and advocacy.

  • Show appreciation – Stressful environments will often permit negativity and criticism and so to combat this, a culture of appreciation and recognition needs to be promoted across the organisation. When people feel appreciated and valued, they are generally happier, more engaged and highly motivated.

  • Focus on wellbeing – It’s no longer acceptable for employers to ignore the health and wellbeing of their staff. More than ever, employees expect employers to respect their emotional, social and financial needs in addition to their physical health. This means that organisations must put staff wellbeing at the heart of the company, encouraging a good work-life balance and providing a range of initiatives from wellbeing programmes through to stress management advice.

Although some companies will be highly stressful places to work and require a complete cultural overhaul, most organisations will create stress in just a few of the ways they operate and behave. It’s therefore important for organisational leaders to be honest and transparent when reviewing their cultures to see which areas may need improvement.     

By focusing on some or all the above six steps to stress-busting, a happier, healthier and more engaged workforce will result, and the business can enjoy reduced sickness days, higher levels of staff retention and increased productivity.