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Let’s talk about social sustainability in the workplace

Cartoon of male and female work colleagues talking with speech bubbles above them on a blue backgroun

By Professor Martyna Śliwa, January 2024

Professor Martyna Śliwa, Professor of Business Ethics and Organisation Studies, discusses her research into the small changes we can make to improve organisational culture.  

Discussions about sustainability in business often focus on environmental sustainability. There are, of course, important reasons for why this is. As science tells us, global heating poses unprecedented challenges to the world, and immediate action is needed to prevent even greater and irreversible changes from occurring.  

According to the evidence underpinning the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it’s been ascertained with a “very high confidence” that “climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and planetary health”, while at the same time, there’s “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”. Unsurprisingly, due to their significant potential to positively contribute to addressing the environmental sustainability challenges the world faces, businesses and other organisations are called upon to take these challenges seriously and to tackle them through effective action. 

Yet, there’s another dimension of sustainability which is, arguably, no less important, especially given its impact on people’s everyday working lives and livelihoods. Namely: social sustainability. While in recent years, we’ve become well versed and reasonably knowledgeable in matters such as climate change, carbon emissions, and biodiversity, we’re generally much less informed about social sustainability. Here, I’ll discuss what social sustainability is, how it connects to the broader United Nations (UN) sustainability agenda, what its implications for businesses and other organisations are, and what it means in the context of the workplace and in relation to individual careers. 

Social sustainability lies at the heart of the UN Global Compact, the largest corporate sustainability initiative in the world. It’s defined as being “about identifying and managing business impacts, both positive and negative, on people. The quality of a company’s relationships and engagement with its stakeholders is critical. Directly or indirectly, companies affect what happens to employees, workers in the value chain, customers and local communities, and it is important to manage these impacts proactively”. The UN Global Compact is based on Ten Principles. The first six focus on social sustainability: the need to eliminate human rights abuses, forced, compulsory and child labour, and discrimination in employment and occupation, and to ensure freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.  

The principles speak to high-level social sustainability challenges and the role of businesses as a force for good for people and communities globally. Their implementation by companies is one of the strategic responsibilities of executive leadership. At the same time, at the local level of managing and leading individuals and teams, the relatively new and still evolving concept of social sustainability in the workplace (SSWP) is increasingly relevant, especially in light of the changes in the world of work – and changing attitudes – exacerbated and brought to light by the Covid pandemic. Achieving SSWP is connected to several Sustainable Development Goals, such as health and wellbeing (SDG-3), gender equality (SDG-5), and decent work (SDG-8).  

To a significant extent, the underlying conditions for accomplishing SSWP are provided by national legislation (e.g. regarding work and employment, as well as protection of the rights of minorities) and sectoral norms (e.g. in relation to the working environments in different industries). However, the ability to achieve SSWP also depends on the organisational culture, including the ways in which the organisation values and facilitates SSWP, as well as the approach taken by individuals towards their own careers.  

In practical terms, how can SSWP objectives be facilitated by organisations? The research I conducted with colleagues from the Universities of Lancaster, Dundee and Middlesex as part of the British Academy of Management funded project addressing Equality, Diversity, Inclusivity and Respect (EDIR) in UK Schools of Business and Management found that organisational working cultures are shaped by what we refer to as ‘micro-practices’. These are represented by everyday routines, behaviours, and instances of communication and interactions at work – which, even if sometimes difficult to pin down, are nevertheless consequential for workplace inclusivity and equitability, for employees’ and managers’ ability to thrive and fulfil their potential at work, and for everyone’s ability to maintain wellbeing and work-life balance. Based on the findings, the message is clear: if we want to change our organisational cultures – in particular, to create a more socially sustainable workplace – we need to pay attention to, and change, the micro-practices which comprise the organisational culture. 

To illustrate what such changes might involve, we’ve implemented a number of adjustments to our daily working micro-practices in the Business School, so as to improve our working culture and to support all staff in achieving a better work-life balance. These adjustments include scheduling meetings, where possible, within core hours (10am-4pm) Monday-Thursday and to end ten minutes before the hour/five minutes before the half-hour; keeping Fridays meetings-free and emails-light; and sending out emails, particularly internal ones, within University business hours (Monday-Friday, 8am-6pm). While these aren’t ‘set in stone’ rules, these adjustments are helping us develop more socially sustainable ways of working. 

Finally, how can individuals support themselves and each other in making their working lives and careers more sustainable? Both in my service as Vice Chair of the British Academy of Management for EDIR, and through my mentoring and professional development activities for academics and research students at DUBS and externally, I often participate in discussions about how to make academic careers more sustainable. Although every workplace has its own unique characteristics and pressures, and there’s no cure-all for the complex challenges of SSWP, there are some ways each of us – in academia and in other sectors – can contribute to making our own and others’ careers more sustainable. Developing our self-awareness and self-reflexivity skills; seeing work and career as an aspect of life with the potential to both enhance and hinder wellbeing; having clarity about our career objectives, what needs to be done to achieve them, and how they fit with the rest of our values, life priorities and plans; and being committed to a long-term academic ‘project’ that’ll continue to be important, regardless of changes in the institutional context, are paramount.  

However, small actions in everyday working life are also crucial. Examples include: setting (realistic) goals in advance of each week; having a clear schedule, with some ‘spare capacity’ included every day; blocking time for different types of activities to avoid a sense of being overwhelmed; defining our boundaries; keeping track of how much our time is spent on work, rest, and other activities; taking time and effort to negotiate our workload; surrounding ourselves with people who share similar values and provide inspiration and support; building positive working relationships; recognising early and addressing difficult working relationships; and focusing on the positive aspects of work. Making such individual contributions to SSWP can be challenging. However, as the building block underpinning the accomplishment of all other aspects of sustainability, SSWP is worth striving for.