Culture and its role supporting a mentally healthy workplace

Learn about what workplace culture means and identify how you can improve it in your workplace.

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Overview

How this helps your business

Workplace culture is broader than the organisational values or policies and can be referred to as a set of deeply rooted assumptions, beliefs, and norms that are ingrained within an organisation.

Fostering a positive workplace environment is important for employee mental health and wellbeing and attracts talent, drives engagement and enhances workplace relationships, performance and job satisfaction.

Leaders play a critical role in workplace culture and are the key drivers of its success. Leaders set the standards of workplace behaviours, display the values and lead by example in all their interactions. When the organisation culture has a people focused approach, it will in turn support positive mental health and wellbeing for your employees.

Key stats and facts


Only 1 in 8 people (13.1%) have a workplace culture that encourages open discussion about issues that affect mental health wellbeing.

Superfriend, 2019 Indicators of a Thriving Workplace Survey


A positive work environment is productive, rewarding, enjoyable and healthy for everyone concerned including managers, employees and clients.

Victorian Public Service Commission, 2015 how positive is your work environment?


Teams working in psychologically safe environments are better at solving problems, innovation and decision making.

HBR, April 2018 The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams

Step 1

Learn more on this topic

Workplace culture affects how an organisation functions and responds to challenges. A healthy workplace culture has high levels of engagement, productivity and a competitive edge.

When an organisations culture is not functional you will see disruption, a change in people's behaviours, attitudes, employees not meeting the organisational values, higher levels of stress, low morale and bullying behaviour. Resulting in significant resources, time and money spent on managing poor employee behaviour and workplace conflict.

You will see in the below case study how 'Organisation D' recovered from a very poor workplace culture by placing a strong focus on better and more open communication. It also showed that if you wanted a desired change in culture it needs to be modelled from the top.

There is a strong link between the mental health of employees and the broader culture that exists in an organisation, it helps define and is influenced by it. That is why it is important to have a workplace mental health strategy. If you don't currently have one in place or would like to review your existing one to identify any gaps then please refer to the how to guide developed by Heads Up.

Step 2

Assess your workplace

So where do you start?

Culture is built on people. Ask your employees how they are feeling about your workplace culture and start to understand what the underlining issues may be.

Firstly let’s look at some of the characteristics of a positive work environment.

  • A high degree of trust and respect between all levels of staff
  • An environment in which employees feel valued and have a strong sense of loyalty to the organisation
  • High quality leadership
  • Open discussion that leads to conflict resolution
  • A culture where diversity is respected and valued
  • Opportunities for personal development and career progression
  • A high level of job satisfaction, team work and collaboration

If you identify that you are not hitting the mark with a number of these characteristics, then lets do a deeper dive and consult with your employees to understand their perception of your workplace culture.

There are a number of ways this can be done, one being through a workplace culture survey. This tool is used to capture data and insights from employees to understand what they think of the current culture, how aligned the organisation is to its values and what areas require improvement.

Another tool is a culture assessment that is based on models of culture that are validated by research. They generally provide a great visual of the culture style of the organisation and some get participants to rate what their ideal culture looks like too, so you can see the gaps between current and ideal.

Please see below an example of a culture survey that can be used or tailored to suit your organisation.

Step 3

Empower workplace leaders

Leaders play a pivotal role in driving workplace culture by influencing others behaviours, decisions and actions. Organisations that focus on creating a positive and healthy culture need to invest in leadership capability.

In August 2020, WorkWell commissioned research that looked at supporting leaders to create psychologically safe workplaces. This research identified the top approaches used by leaders to support individual staff and their mental health at work are; developing trusting relationships with individuals at work, giving individual authority to make decisions, demonstrating to staff they are in a fail-safe environment, helping staff deal with uncertainty and helping individuals keep on top of job demands.

To improve the capability of leadership in your business, consider implementing some strategies and setting clear expectations for your leaders:

  • Implement coaching, mentoring, succession planning and induction programs for new leaders.
  • Develop employees collectively and individually at their point of need, offer leadership training and development opportunities to aspiring leaders.
  • Establish high levels of accountability.
  • Support Leaders contribution to the overall workplace culture through quality communication, setting expectations, collaboration, building trust and providing support.
  • Create work conditions for leaders to thrive, building team capability with a shared purpose based on the organisations vision and values.

Studies show there is a strong link between trust, leadership and team performance. When your team has trust in their leader, it will increase their commitment to organisation goals, productivity and improve communication. But more importantly in the hands of a trusted leader, employees are more comfortable with change and more willing to embrace a new vision.

Ask your leaders to complete the below questionnaire, reflecting on their own Leadership and how they can put together a simple action plan to assist them in building trust within their teams.

Step 4

Encourage good communication

A common theme in workplaces who are working to improve their workplace culture, is how do they break down silos and improve communication across the organisation to become more collaborative.

A collaborative workplace not only equals a happier workforce but a more educated one. Collaboration naturally creates a sense of belonging where employees are more informed and part of the journey, resulting in:

  • The knowledge sharing which produces a more educated and skillful workforce.
  • More effectively completing tasks.
  • Employee satisfaction, feeling valued.
  • Cross organisation skills can be pooled.
  • Employees can be educated by each other and their Leaders.

Organisations who practice effective communication create an environment where employees feel respected and understood which significantly boosts morale and productivity.

Refer to the resource below with 5 ways to improve communication in your workplace.

Step 5

Review and keep improving

Managing culture is not a one-off event, but a continuous and ongoing effort that must be integrated into day-to-day business operations. Creating and maintaining a positive workplace culture can be challenging as work priorities shift and organisations grow and evolve. That’s why it is important to continually review and monitor your workplace culture by considering the following:

  • is there clear leadership committed to positive mental health and wellbeing
  • a supportive team environment
  • support for your employees through change
  • clarity of roles
  • practices and behaviours consistent with stated values
  • adequate feedback on performance and recognition of work
  • healthy interpersonal relationships
  • healthy work and home life balance

Other ways to review your workplace culture is through your annual employee opinion survey, this is a great way to monitor your culture and compare from year to year. You may also like to conduct a second workplace culture survey, similar to the survey in step 2 this provides you with a pulse check to ensure you are tracking in the right direction.

Take a minute to review our work related factors page to further understand the psychosocial hazards and how they are closely linked to workplace culture.

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Disclaimer: The WorkWell Toolkit provides general information only. Please consider your specific circumstances, needs and seek appropriate professional advice.