The Power in Peaceful Environments: What a story about an unlikely war correspondent can teach us about improving morale in business today
Company culture. I’m sure you’ve heard this topic discussed on loop throughout the past year. What initially seemed like just another corporate buzzword, is now a trigger for heated debate, largely in part to headlines exposing how companies today are treating their employees. It’d be easy to categorize this as a recent problem, but if we look to history, we can find plenty of stories about the ways stressful working environments can negatively affect the human mind.
Consider the story of artist Adrian Hill. While enlisted with the Honourable Artillery Company in the British Army during World War I, Adrian Hill found himself at the front lines brandishing a peculiar tool for a soldier: a sketchpad. Before the days of reliable photography, spy-planes, and satellites, enemy fortifications had to be drawn by hand. Artists-turned-soldiers like Hill were dispatched into the flurry of cross-fire to illustrate realistic depictions of assets and positions. It was a perilous and traumatic period, and Hill suffered deeply from such intimate exposure to the turmoil of war.
After returning home, Hill’s physical and mental health deteriorated and he entered a sanitarium to recuperate. To ease his psychological anguish, he returned to sketching and discovered that it offered him therapeutic respite. He continued to paint throughout his recovery and went on to develop what we refer to today as art therapy.
Now, you might be thinking, “Oh gee, what an interesting historical anecdote, but how does this relate to business today?”
The answer is the power of positive environments—or, alternatively, the fallout from a lack thereof. Jobs have always had their challenges, but statistics show that stress, fear, and fatigue at work are on the rise. According to a Conference Board report, only 49.6% of employees were satisfied with their jobs in 2015.
Yeesh, that’s less than half of the workforce. What gives? Why are we so unhappy? Stressors like fear of being fired, lack of trust, long hours, impossible deadlines, little upward mobility, and lack of personal or exercise time are consistently cited as top employee grievances. And while it’s possible that any number of things contribute to these stressors, the recent recession is still a looming influence. Many companies survived the economic downturn by cutting back and doing more with less. And though the economy has since stabilized, some operational practices haven’t—and it’s taking a toll on employees who feel the pinch. Companies marred by negative or stressful working environments tend to experience more churn and less productivity.
This steers us back around to Adrian Hill and what we can learn from his pioneering form of therapy. After his own recovery, he began practicing art therapy with PTSD patients and discovered that they healed because they were placed in supportive, trusting, and flexible environments, which softened their symptoms and allowed them to thrive.
So, considering the story of Adrian Hill, what can you start doing to promote peace instead of war within your workplace?
An easy place to begin is by encouraging collaboration. If employees see their co-workers or leaders as combatants, they’re going to remain in a state of defensiveness. Fearful of being sabotaged, they will have little incentive to speak their minds or contribute to the creative process. This goes for everyone who’s involved in a shared outcome. It just makes sense that you get the best results when the burden isn’t placed on any one person’s shoulders.
Celebrating employee individuality is another way to promote positive culture. Humans are beautifully diverse, with varied backgrounds and styles of productivity. Some are morning people, others night owls. Some people need mid-day breaks to recharge, others can toil for eight hours straight. This isn’t to say that traditional 9-to-5 structures are inherently bad—they’re not—but finding small ways to honor individuality can go a long way in terms of morale. You can’t pay people for time they’ll never get back, so offering more space for family and leisure time is just one way companies are working to make their employees feel a sense of peace.
Finally, employees are more loyal to their employers when they feel a sense of mutual trust. In his TED talk, Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe, Simon Sinek says that, similar to our ancient ancestors, when people feel as though they are part of a tribe, they feel secure, and this leads to success. And this sense of safety and trust has to come from the top levels of leadership in order for it to trickle down throughout the organization. Be transparent and truthful about your goals and the health of the company—even if it’s negative. Employees will appreciate feeling like part of your inner circle.
We’re all spending around 40-ish hours on average at work every week, so shouldn’t we enjoy it at least? By promoting a peaceful place of encouragement, support, and growth, business leaders can make work something to look forward to, instead of something to flee.
If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, please read the expanded version of the story in LORE, our newsletter that looks to the past to find lessons we can apply to business today.