Can we sustain a culture of workplace care beyond the era of COVID-19?

The COVID-19 pandemic provided a worldwide wake-up call, reminding us of the human aspect of what it means to be a thriving employee. Here BSI’s Global Head, Health, Safety and Well-being Kate Field (CMIOSH) makes the case for a culture of care to be preserved.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic something strange and unexpected happened in the corporate world – it rediscovered the value of its humanity. This was a disruption that impacted everyone. Hierarchical barriers of ‘them’ and ‘us’ were replaced with ‘we are all in this together’, creating a culture of care that simply had not existed in many organizations before the pandemic.

Looking after people in these unprecedented times was, of course, the right and socially responsible thing to do but there was also an often-forgotten business benefit that was clearly highlighted in BSI’s Organizational Resilience Index Report 2021. Organizations that prioritize their people are more resilient, not only surviving but were in a better position to start to build back better.

Sadly, this culture of care was not universal. Global news stories highlighted cases of workers having to work in unsafe environments and not being provided with suitable personal protective equipment. Data from the ongoing Gallup Social Series poll in the US showed the lowest score on feeling safe in the workplace from the last decade.

But change is underway. Whilst homeworking and flexible hours may not be the panacea for everyone, COVID-19 has shattered the institutional barriers to a new, more people focussed approach where autonomy and flexibility are valued, creating a new culture of care based on trust.

Additional influences are fanning the embers of change. #Metoo and Black Lives Matter are driving the diversity, equality, and inclusion agenda with renewed power. Shareholder capitalism – often under fire for its perceived lack of moral and ethical conduct – is being replaced by a growing move toward stakeholder capitalism, as seen through increased focus on ESG (environmental, social and governance) reporting.

The UN Global Compact and Sustainable Development Goals are gaining traction as Generation Z demand action on climate change and a workplace that prioritizes their well-being. Governments are increasingly concerned about the social burden of mental illness, obesity, chronic illness, and an ageing population and are looking to organizations to keep workers healthy and in work longer through sustainable employability. Organizations are looking at digitization and technology and wondering how to survive and thrive.

We need to ensure that as corporate memory of the pandemic fades, organizations and their leaders do not lose sight of the business cost of failure to ensure good health, safety and well-being at work.

Evidence for this can be found in the BSI-sponsored BCI Horizon Scan Reports. Each year, the report captures the biggest disrupters to organizations within the year and then asks what the biggest disrupters will be for the next 12 months. For the last three years, health and safety incidents have scored in the top three disrupters for the past year. Yet when the answers for future disrupters are reviewed, safety doesn’t make the top ten. Until this year health incidents didn’t make the top ten either. Even in the grip of a pandemic, health only ranked as the 8th most recognised future disruptor in the 2021 report.

Even where an organization directly experiences the negative impacts of poor health and safety, it can be seen as a ‘one-off’ and culpability is often laid at the feet of only one or two individuals (often including the poor individual who was harmed), with limited levels of accountability taken at leadership levels.

BSI’s Prioritizing People Model© has been designed to support any organization to create the right conditions for individual fulfilment (well-being) and organizational resilience, irrespective of their starting point.

Our best practice model posits that if people’s basic needs are not effectively addressed, then any progress made at higher stages will be short-lived. If the foundations are not robust, the rest will crumble. We hope that the model will sustain the care we have seen during the pandemic, embedding these values and behaviours to generate significant cultural change.

Find out more by downloading the prioritizing people whitepaper.