Recognizing A Healthy Workplace

Recognizing A Healthy Workplace
By Karen Hewitt (ze/hir/she/her)
Associate Director, Leadership Columbus

I am a strong believer in work-life balance. I also know we spend, at minimum 40 hours of a 168 hour week working. It is significant. This pandemic has caused us to look at work with a different lens of late, however, we needed to. As a whole, our current relationship with work could be considered unhealthy. Our society has historically unhealthy, exploitive, and even abusive relationships with capitalism, racism, patriarchy, ageism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia (amongst other isms and phobias), and of course, all of that impacts the workplace experience. 

This awareness of societal relationship with isms, phobias, and oppression is noted to bring a reflective lens to the conversation of capitalism and how that plays into our individual and collective relationship with work. Because these isms and phobias exist, we are forced into the conversation of discovering what having a healthy relationship with these isms looks like. At this point in history, I think the best we can do is to work to dismantle the isms and phobias in our own lives and in the workplace. There is no loving relationship available with racism or capitalism, more so working towards awareness of the impacts and dismantling the historical and current disparities created by all these isms and phobias on us as a society. ‘The Great Resignation’ has asked us to look at our professional relationships with a critical eye. 

This begs the question: what does a healthy workplace look like? 

My career path has been anything but orthodox. Beginning my career as a math major turned adjunct teacher and assistant women’s basketball college coach in the hills of Pennsylvania was an interesting start. I went on to teach high school mathematics and coach high school girls basketball for a year before returning to college athletics. Coaching at that level was taxing and intense. I have shoeboxes full of lessons and journal entries from the first eight years of my professional life. College coaching is a lifestyle. The calendar is different. The hours are long and full of putting your success in the hands of 18-23 year olds. It’s a profession of young people, and people are the wild card in all experiments. 

I decided to come back to Ohio to get my Masters in Educational Policy and Leadership where I thought the idea of being a principal may be the thing that would get me back in the classroom. What I found at The Ohio State University was that I did not have to be on a principal licensure path and I could (mostly) create the coursework of my dreams. It was there that I explored and minored in Workforce Development, Strategic Human Capital and Diversity and Inclusion. I got to hear, learn, and observe, in theory, what it meant to create and lead a healthy organization. 

What I actually learned was the disparities that prevent organizations from being healthy and fulfilling spaces for all. I learned that–more times than not–it’s profit over people. As I continued my career in Human Resource Management and Organizational Development, I began to idealize a healthy workplace. I would pick specific parts of each place I worked in to keep while also remembering what not to do for when I would move on. 

I am now, thankfully, in roles where I can create the workspaces I once longed for as a mid level manager. I take the responsibility of senior leadership very seriously and work to be perpetually flexible and accountable as the workplace and people change over time. 

I have toiled with perfectionism over the course of my life. grappled with its meaning and implication since I was young. I was raised to be as close to perfect as possible. Perfection at the cost of rest, sanity, and a false understanding of meritocracy. In unlearning all of that socialization, I have come to understand that perfection is relative, that it includes human error and mostly means exactly what I need or want vs. some arbitrary definition of what perfect should mean. 

How does this practice of perfection inform my experience professionally? I am less likely to look for a “perfect workplace”. I look for and work to create a workplace that is perfect for me. That may look different for different minds and different processes and leadership styles. 

It is important to get clear on what the perfect workplace would look like for you. We often are able to so quickly say what we don’t want. Our experiences create protective barriers for us. Put us in survival mode. The mind is powerful and protective. In this article I will discuss some of the characteristics I look for in a healthy workplace in an effort to shine a light on practices and cultural tones of a workplace that are equitable, inclusive, and affirming. 

Healthy is defined here as a safe place for all (willing and eager) people to work, grow, develop, challenge the status quo, and experience belonging. Willing and eager is a very important piece to this. I would say all people, but the truth is: if you are not committed and willing to grow and change as needed, it becomes challenging to work with others as the world changes around you. For those involved in the conversation, we are acknowledging diversity, equity, inclusion, and advancement opportunities as understood quantitatively (performance metrics) and qualitatively (through survey and discussion). A healthy workplace can be messy, it very well should be when it comes to humans. It has a culture that allows for reconciliation and repair for fractured relationships and conflict and also is a learning environment. Finally, and most importantly, a healthy workplace would allow for accountability and sustainability. 

What are traits of a healthy workplace? 

  • Representative and Diverse Leadership that is doing ‘the work’- Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Accessibility. 

As a Black, Queer, Woman presenting individual, I get very curious on the diversity dimensions present in senior leadership of an organization. I am aware that for me this means visible diversity around race and gender expression. I think you can tell a lot about an organization by the placement of Black Women. Currently, Black Women serve as 4% of C-Suite leadership corporately. This number may be slightly higher in human service and non-profit work, but not by much. I pay close attention and use how the organization positions Black, Queer, Trans and/or Disabled folx as a barometer for my own potential success (talk to your friends about what words they prefer you use to speak about different physical and mental abilities. Personally, I prefer the term disabled and I identify this way as well). 

Is there token diversity or is there actual representation? Tokenization is when people have one representative for a given diversity dimension instead of a rich mix of diverse people and looks more  like a box that is checked off in terms of diversity quotas. That one person is often asked to speak for the entire demographic they supposedly represent. This can be done to create the perception that there is diversity present. Tokenization is also an ideology where people have no interest in actually diversifying the space, only to appear so to the public. This is much harder to discern in the sense that we are talking about leadership’s intent to actually diversify vs. just saying all the right things, hiring enough folks here and there, and not actually working towards diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging in senior leadership. 

How do people talk about their experiences? It is really hard to work in a space where the proverbial glass ceiling is middle management before you even sign your contract. Pay close attention to the leaders and the voices that are amplified and followed. That will always determine how far you are able to go in any diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility efforts. 

As a DEI and Anti-Racism facilitator, I often get asked what ‘the work’ means. At its simplest, it means consistently checking in with yourself around your personal contributions to harm in oppressive systems. It means getting in ‘Right Relationship’ with the people in your life personally and professionally. Right Relationship comes from the Principle of Oneness stating that we are all connected and we impact each other. Right relationship is about being aligned and in integrity with yourself and others.It means addressing and unlearning your biases and how that shows up in your behaviors. It means advocacy for yourself and others. It means learning how to consider the most vulnerable in the room and making them feel welcomed. Is this happening culturally in the workplace you are observing or working in?

  • Development and Advancement Opportunities

This also can allude back to visibility and representation. The question I ask here is, “are there equitable pathways to professionally develop all employees?” I also ask the question, “are supervisors equipped to support their employees to develop in the ways that best serve them?” Get curious on how performance evaluations are conducted. Ask about coaching and professional development opportunities outside of the organization L&D itself. Is there a budget for PD? All of these questions will hopefully help you understand what is available to you in terms of development and advancement. I am personally very committed to PD and L&D, so this is a non-negotiable in my healthy workplace. It also shows a spirit of a learning environment which is great to see in adults. 

  • Transparent and Open Communication

I believe we confuse transparency with telling all. The most important aspect of communication is consistency. My observations here automatically go to the systems in place for leadership to communicate with their organizations. This may have levels and idiosyncrasies. How are messages delivered to employees, candidates, internal staff and external clients? Are the messages consistent internally and externally? Do the messages share the right amount of context and clarity? An example of this is sharing the company budget. Many don’t understand how to read a budget. I would be more appreciative if I was told what the gaps were in funding and what my role is (individually and departmentally) in closing the gap. Also, does leadership follow up in communication when projects are completed or when we are going in a different direction? 

I understand privacy in HR grievances and when people leave an organization. How leadership and HR handles someone leaving is a huge indicator for me of what the standard is on how much dignity we provide people in times of conflict, up to separation. 

  • Healthy Work/Life Boundaries

It is incredibly important to have healthy boundaries modeled by your supervisor and leadership. As a member of senior leadership teams, I can say to make sure you take care of yourself, but if I do not model that behavior, then how can you take me seriously? If I am constantly exhausted or burned out, how can you not think that is the way to get to where I am? Do people send emails to each other past closing time? What do ‘out of office’ messages look like? Do people actually take vacation? Are you encouraged to simply say yes when something is asked of you or do you reflect and feel safe to say whether you actually have capacity to complete the task? How do you communicate with your co-workers? Are jokes culturally appropriate or at others’ expense? Boundaries is a lifelong journey of checking in with yourself and then being honest about what that means to the world. You want to make sure you are in an environment that does not require you to disregard or ignore what is healthy for you personally and professionally in terms of boundary setting.

  • A Culture of Accountability

This is important personally and professionally. In the healthy workplace, a culture of accountability means that people understand when they may be out of line and are called into what is possible when they step outside of that agreed upon expectation. For example, if someone seems exhausted or maybe even burnt out, a team member could say to them, “Hey, you seem a little exhausted, is there an opportunity for you to go home early? How can I support you getting some rest?” This also means if something harmful is happening, maybe someone keeps interrupting another co-worker and someone steps in and says. “We don’t interrupt our co-workers here. It is really important we let them finish.” An effective leader steps in and says that is not how we do things around here as opposed to focusing on their behavior or the individual. 

Accountability is challenging especially with leadership. In the healthy workplace with leadership that is willing to grow, I am constantly watching how leadership handles mistakes or conflict. How do they express when they have misstepped individually and collectively? You can have all the policies around accountability, but if the culture does not hold anyone responsible for upholding it, then it is simply ideas on paper. 

  • Culturally Responsive and Trauma Informed

This is a very specific request I have of organizations. I work with people and it is important to understand in the human service space that people are going through things we don’t always understand. In crisis and relationship, it is important to be aware of trauma responses and cultural responses to threats. This information does not only make it easier to work with clients, it also makes it easier to understand and connect with your teammates and co-workers. This awareness is very supportive to you individually as you unpack systems of oppression, evaluate how they impact you, and work towards finding your own healing. 

  • Compensation packages

I would be remiss not to mention the basics in a compensation package. To me this includes: a flexible work schedule (virtual and in person), PTO policies, competitive pay, bonus opportunities, affirming health care plans, mental health opportunities, professional development opportunities, and 401K and IRA opportunities with matches. This may seem like a lot and for smaller organizations it is harder to achieve.There is also a lot that goes beyond policies, procedures and pay. Sometimes people stay because of a feeling of belonging. Maybe they are appreciated in ways that they value deeply. I always believed that love languages translate into the workplace. I appreciate acts of service and words of affirmation. What would your work love languages be? What would need to be in a compensation package for you to feel adequately compensated for your time, expertise, and energy?

  • Succession Plans for leadership

This is something that is often seen as taboo in the workplace unless there is a family lineage and everyone knows the line of succession. Is there a plan when the CEO, COO, HR manager, or Executive Director steps down? Do people know what that would mean for them and their professional development plan? Oftentimes we get surprised when someone is leaving. What if that changed culturally and people felt comfortable sharing their dreams and 5-year or 10-year plans? What if people were able to pursue what they are passionate about within and outside of work? How wonderful would it be to be able to say, “I got this dream job and I think I am going to take it,” and then give a month’s notice instead of two weeks and create a succession plan with your team. Then when you leave there is no vacuum or scrambling around trying to fill the gap of what you left undone in a hurry. People could leave in peace, knowing that everything was in place for their departure and the team is sad to see them go but happy to see them thrive. We don’t see this in workplace culture often. This was my positive experience leaving my last job to come to Leadership Columbus and it made my transition very smooth and affirming. 

  • Fun

I will always advocate that work can be fun. As someone who spends more than 40 hours a week working, it is essential to enjoy the people I work with and be able to have fun. This requires ‘Right Relationship’ and knowing your teammates, however it is worth it. In environments where humor lives and people know that it is okay to laugh out loud or share a meme or a GIF with a coworker, they are the most life-giving. 

These are all traits that I have found in my most healthy workplace experiences. Professionally this is my wish list. I also utilize my power when I am in senior leadership to create spaces that are inclusive and affirming and have many of the traits listed above. Oftentimes I am faced with employees that come to work with me and have never experienced a healthy workplace. This presents a different challenge. It takes time to settle into an environment that is safe compared to an unhealthy environment. It can also come with its own resistance. People will not be prepared for calm, ease, and peace. They will be prepared for a fight, for compliance and endurance. Also as a leader, it took me years to get healthy myself.  I was not always creating the best spaces and culture and I know what that looks like. We all know what it looks like when it is not healthy and those lived experiences give us insight on what to look for. As a leader, have patience for this and reiterate your intent and opportunities that may be present for yourself AND the employee as they settle in.

In reflection, I am constantly considering what I need in an environment to create space for a generative experience. It is like having a clean home or room so now you can do your work in peace. Culture is essential to creating a work environment conducive to creativity, inclusion and affirmation. 

What are traits that would create the healthiest environment for you?