Organisational culture influences employee wellbeing

Workplace culture and job satisfaction have a big impact on wellbeing and absence. OH practitioners should address this, argues Anna Harrington.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises mental health as a state of wellbeing in which “every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community” (Oct, 2009).

The choices that people make and the behaviours they exhibit are often influenced by the context in which they find themselves. Those behaviours may or may not enhance wellbeing. The context will overtly or covertly place rules and guidance on attitudes and behaviours. Within the workplace this is often referred to as the organisational culture.

A culture, as defined by Schein, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, is a “pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems” (Schein E, 1993). An individual’s ability to work productively and fruitfully will be dependent on the organisational culture. As a result the culture will either positively or negatively affect mental health and wellbeing.

Understanding and influencing the culture of an organisation

The CBI/Pfizer study, On the path to recovery: absence and workplace health survey 2010, found that focusing on workplace culture had the same level of impact on absence as sickness absence management. It also found that wellbeing policies have a positive impact on absence levels, productivity and morale.

A report by the World Economic Forum and consultancy Right Management in 2010 also found that wellbeing is as much shaped by employee engagement as by physical and psychological health. This same research found that organisations engaged in promoting wellbeing are more likely to have significant improvements in employee engagement, productivity, creativity and lower talent drain.

Therefore, wellbeing affects engagement in different ways:

  • individual – negative attitudes towards job satisfaction, job involvement;

  • commitment and intention to remain with the organisation – stress, reduced motivation, feelings of betrayal; and

  • organisational – loss of trust, deterioration in communications, increase in fear, resistance to change and increased rigidity. Deterioration in quality, productivity and customer relations.

These effects can be felt by the most senior managers (who may be in denial) to employees at the bottom of the organisation. (Hallier and Lyon, 1996).

Management behaviour

An organisational culture is created by those within the organisation. Due to the power relationship between staff, managers and leaders, the groups that have the biggest impact on the culture are those with authority and who take the lead in the organisation. It therefore makes sense to consider and understand the behaviour of these groups in order to evaluate the organisational culture.

The role of the manager is to ensure work is performed effectively and efficiently. Methods adopted by managers should help others to carry out tasks without causing a negative reaction or harm take time to develop. Among the characteristics needed to achieve this are persuasion, understanding of the other person’s needs and motivations, attentiveness, trustworthiness, humour and intelligence, wisdom and the ability to nurture an individual (Mowbray D, 2010).

To secure a positive work culture an organisation needs to influence and develop its managers to adopt behaviours that persuade employees to undertake tasks in a positive and empowering way.

The recently published Business in the Community (BITC) Workwell model for workplace health management (December, 2010) appears to fall shy of putting management behaviours at the centre. It does recognise that the environment affects employees’ feelings and health choices, but it does not state that it is the culture and the behaviour of the leaders and managers that affect the environment. To develop employee wellbeing and engagement the model needs to start with understanding the culture of the organisation.

Manager’s code

To bring clarity to management behaviour a point of reference could be developed, such as The Manager’s Code of Conduct (Mowbray D, 2010).

A manager’s code focuses on:

  • management of an organisation;

  • management of people; and

  • management of the service.

The code is a guide for the manager that reflects the organisational values, missions and principles. Its purpose is to set out the standards and expectations of the behaviour of managers within the organisation. It is a tool that can be used to develop managers and nurture their talent. It should be unambiguous when setting out the expected behavioural standards, so that it brings lucidity and understanding to an organisation.

In a review into the quality assurance of NHS managers by management consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), it was recognised that a manager’s code of conduct is central to influencing the behaviour of top-level NHS managers, but also needed to be current and relevant to the context in which they are being used (PwC, 2009). The code can assist in the creation of a positive workplace culture.

OH professionals

Occupational health professionals can actively assist in the creation of workplaces that promote health and wellbeing. Therefore, occupational health professionals have a role to play in the development of workplace cultures that nurture and develop individuals. It is right that they encourage an organisation to implement wellbeing initiatives that have organisational culture central to them and to move other organisations beyond the easy wellbeing days offering physical health promotion events or immediate “feel better” services such as massage.

The development of a positive workplace culture is a slow, long process but one that has a substantial amount of research supporting it. If we adopt this method we will create organisations that benefit the customers, clients, patients, the people who work in them and the wider community (Aston L, 2010).

Anna Harrington is an independent occupational health adviser specialising in health, work and wellbeing. She can be contacted at


Schein E. 1993. Organisational Culture and Leadership. In Classics of Organisation Theory. Jay Shafritz and J. Steven Ott, eds. 2001. Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers.

Pfizer/CBI. “On the path to recovery: absence and workplace health survey 2010”.

The World Economic Forum/Right Management, “The wellness imperative: creating more effective organisations”. 2010.

MacLeod and Clarke. “Engaging for success: enhancing performance through employee engagement”. 2009.

Hallier J and Lyon P. “Job insecurity and employee commitment: managers’ reactions to threats and outcomes of redundancy selection”. British Journal of Management, 7 (1):107-123. 1996.

Mowbray D. “Changing management behaviour”. Aug 2010, occasional paper, vol.3 no.7.

Aston L. “Helping workers help themselves”. Occupational Health, vol.62 (11). Nov 2010.

Mowbray D. The Manager’s Code of Conduct, Management Advisory Service. 2010.

PwC. “Assuring the quality of senior NHS managers”. Oct 2009.

A model employee wellbeing policy is available to download from XpertHR, as well as a case study on how wellbeing schemes cut absence at the City of London Police.

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