The Care Ethic

Bringing the Care Ethic to Work – 4 Ways to Change Your Workplace (and People) Forever

When we look back on the workplaces of the 1950s and ‘60s, anyone could be forgiven for shaking their heads. The workaholic culture that competitive boomers built. The alcohol? And casual systemic sexism? Or the fact they didn’t even know about systemic issues. All of this is both mystifying and deeply problematic to us today. But give it 50 years or so and it’s highly likely that future generations are going to look at the current American workplace and say what on earth, were they thinking? If you don’t believe me, look at the numbers – they’re everywhere. 89% of workers say they have felt burned out in the past 12 months. 77% currently report burnout. And, beyond what that does to people, businesses are suffering too. The American Institute of Stress calculates the bill for worker absenteeism, health care costs, turnover and plain old lack of productivity is a staggering $300 billion annually. Something needs to be changed urgently in the workplace before offices go up in smoke from combusting cube workers. It’s time for us to embrace people not profits and activate a new care ethic at work. Here’s how.


Prioritize well-being of people
For too long a tough it out culture of feel-nothing-say-nothing has been perpetuated in the American workplace. Fearing reprisals and worry for their jobs, workers hide anxiety or other mental health challenges from their employees. But shouldn’t a truly modern professional image, for any organization, now be more about complete empathy, understanding and support for our colleagues, teammates and workers – and regardless of their seniority or situation?

When more than 11% of the U.S. workforce report working in excess of 50 hours every week, even after the pandemic, culture needs to change. That’s not an easy lift for any business, but it starts with reviewing processes, the way bosses set expectations and communicate with their employees. Plan for a re-set that includes firstly clear communications around support for all employees. Then drill down to tweak or evolve things like employee evaluation, inter-office communications and work style practices, and finally put into places the hard and fast changes that walk the talk. These can include a maximum 40 hour work week, a ban on after hours email check in, stress breaks during the day, on-site or virtual support services for every employee and constant reviews of how change is being implemented.


Promote healthy relationships
It’s incredible to think we prioritize healthy relationships in our home lives and with friends, and yet work, where many of us spend more time, has traditionally been low on the list for relationship focus. And yet there are all kinds of relationship pitfalls at work – starting with old hierarchies that foster a “them” and “us” dynamic between managers and teams. Or ultra-aggressive productivity cultures where teams are pitted against each other and race to a result, breeding resentment, ill-will and contributing to burn out. As we look to develop a care ethic at work, know that healthy relationships are built on open, honest communication. Encourage more open, two-way communication with one-on-one meetings and check-ins. Institute cross-functional work models, where workers get to interact with other departments and disciplines and work towards a common goal. And provide plenty of opportunities for both formal and casual for employees to speak and be heard.


Embrace individuals but foster collaboration
If you don’t have DEI baked in to everything you do as a business, you need to rethink your business. But the care ethic also recognizes the independence and individuality of every single worker. That means putting into place practices that foster a workplace culture that values teamwork, cooperation and mutual support instead of individual achievement and competition. By encouraging employees to work closely as teams, but not in competition with others, it’s also possible to help them more easily recognize the impact of their actions on their colleagues and alter behaviors. Reward and celebrate team achievements too in order to begin building a lasting collaborative culture and encourage your employees to do the same for colleagues.


Show everybody matters
People matter inside and more critically outside of work. In previous generations, employees checked their personal lives at the door and got down to business. But crafting a caring workplace today centers around understanding and support for individuals. Ask these questions. Do we have a generous allocation for PTO, mental health and vacation days to help employees take care of themselves and take a break? Are we supporting flexibility that allows people to balance work commitments with real life responsibilities – to make it to daycare pickup on time, look after an aging relative or simply spend time on self-care? Instituting simple workplace changes can help. Ensure managers lead by example, leave on time and encourage their employees to follow suit. And make employee evaluations just as much about the person as their productivity, becoming moments to discuss stress, anxiety or practical work challenges as well as professional development needs.


Make decisions ethically
Doing the right thing and making the right decisions in the moment will always speak volumes. What’s that mean? Saying no to new business when your team is over-stretched and stressed. Reducing profit goals versus cutting staff to make your numbers. Choosing to invest in people versus profits to fund mental health support services, life coaching, work from home technologies and processes is now a business imperative. And so too is the consideration of new ideas that show you see, hear and support the people around you and not just what they do when they walk through the door.