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Michael Barrell: “Fantastic work culture”

Improving the lives of others at work, based on sound evidence and reasoning, needs to become front and center in modern management practices. As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Barrell. Michael Barrell who is Managing Director of Aethra Consulting, […]

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Improving the lives of others at work, based on sound evidence and reasoning, needs to become front and center in modern management practices.


As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Barrell.

Michael Barrell who is Managing Director of Aethra Consulting, a firm that helps healthcare leaders improve organizational and employee wellbeing.

Michael holds an MBA from Melbourne Business School and, prior to consulting, practiced as a lawyer and as a nurse.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Ispent more than a decade practicing as a clinician and health services manager in the mental health sector. Despite the number of different settings that I worked in — hospitals, child and adolescent services, prisons, and community services — I couldn’t help but notice how stressed and unhappy so many of my colleagues were and how this ultimately affected patient care. Disillusioned, I made a change. I became a lawyer, completed business school, and founded a biotechnology company. However, the nagging question of what the business, legal and social cases are for better organizational and employee wellbeing in healthcare stayed with me. So I returned to healthcare as a management consultant to try to make a difference.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Despite being physically separated in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic, we humans remain neurobiologically hardwired for social connection. When people feel cared for and connected, they are more effective.

To help satiate this need for connection amongst employees, one of our clients decided to have unique handwritten letters — essentially a corporate love letter — sent to all staff expressing their gratitude and appreciation.

This was a simple, yet powerful instance of recognizing the value of making time for thoughtful human connection throughout our work week.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Social isolation due to COVID19 has probably hit the aged care sector harder than most. To help remedy this, one of our clients provides virtual reality experiences to aged care residents. What they are trying to do is to show residents that they can have meaningful social connections with loved ones beyond just via telephone, Skype or FaceTime.

I think this type of innovation can ultimately benefit not only those in healthcare settings or video game buffs, but also the remote workforce. Whilst working remotely has many benefits — such as efficiency and autonomy — social connectedness will always be an obstacle. Technology that goes to overcome this should be welcomed.

Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

It might be inconvenient to admit this but I think the US and much of the western world is yet to truly wake up to the dangers and enormous costs of today’s workplace. Modern management practices that induce long hours, work-family conflict, and financial insecurity are without doubt toxic to employees. They hurt engagement, increase turnover and, ultimately, destroy health and happiness.

I also think that many companies seem to accept as true that an inevitable trade-off exists between creating an environment that supports employee health and wellbeing and saving money and keeping costs low to enhance their profits. This is a false choice. Affording employees the opportunity to live healthy and satisfying work lives is completely consistent with enhancing an organization’s economic performance.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Employees who are unhappy at work unsurprisingly have difficulty in bringing their best selves, most productive selves to work.

This unhappiness throws many performance metrics out of whack. Staff absenteeism and turnover increases as staff prefer to not come to work or move on altogether. Customer satisfaction wanes as those on the frontline are less able to meet their needs. Burnout, accidents, injuries and workplace violence occurs as staff tempers increase. Union grievances are aired more frequently. Lastly, with unhappiness being positively correlated with a raft of medical co-morbidities, health insurance costs inevitably go up.

The worst case of course is that people die in an unhappy workforce. In 2016, a young employee of the large advertising firm Dentsu jumped to her death. Before doing so, she told her friends about the long hours and continued harassment on the job. Working Saturdays and Sundays, she put in over one hundred hours of overtime a month. The Japanese even have a word for death from overwork — ‘karoshi’. Now this is an extreme case, but it is not isolated.

Therefore, to answer your question, an unhappy workforce will profoundly negatively affect company productivity, company profitability, and employee health and wellbeing.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

All organizations, in all industries have affordable and effective choices when it comes to enhancing workplace culture.

A first step that I would recommend is to identify what your current culture is, what your preferred culture is, and how aligned or disconnected your current and preferred states are. Fortunately, organizational culture can be measured. One well-validated tool is the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI). Developed from research conducted on the major indicators of effective organizations, the OCAI helps to identify the dominant culture types in an organisation and the strength and congruence of that culture.

Second, I would encourage instituting quality leadership development. People quit their bosses more than their company, so it sits squarely with leaders to become more self-aware and better thinkers in order to cultivate relationships and grow the organization.

Third, I would advise that micromanagement be minimized. When people feel like they are being dictated to or micromanaged, they will become less fulfilled and less productive. Effective coaching and role clarity can go a long way toward minimizing micromanagement.

Fourth, managers should work towards incorporating autonomy and flexibility into roles across the organization. Decision-making discretion and enhanced role latitude empowers staff to solve problems as they are discovered and enhances connections with other teams or business units.

Lastly, managers and executives should be encouraged to pay close attention to the language within the workplace. Wording within the workplaces that emphasizes divisions between leadership and employees can alienate people and erode any sense of shared community or identity. Instead, ensure people are less separated by title and start using language that is more consistent with the idea of an organisation being a community. For example, try to avoid talking about your workforce as ‘human resources’ and view them instead as partners, people, and employees. Unlike other resources and capital, humans require autonomy and need to direct their own lives. Humans are not resources, they are whole, self-directing human beings. They will reward you for treating them as such.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

I think the notion of “shared value” has a lot to offer in this space. Shared value is a business strategy designed to solve social issues profitably.

Originally an academic concept introduced in 2011 by Harvard Business School professors Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, shared value made the radical proposition that organisational success and improved social and environmental conditions are in fact inherently linked — and when achieved together, they can dramatically enhance our future prosperity. The concept has since been adopted by global business.

It does this by leveraging the resources and innovation of the organization to enhance the competitiveness and resilience of an organisation while simultaneously advancing the economic and social conditions of the communities in which it operates.

Organizations prepared to invest in solutions for the wellbeing challenges experienced by their workforce can increase margins and gain competitive advantage by applying the shared value approach.

This can be achieved through ensuring an organization-wide commitment to promoting wellbeing of staff, supporting staff effectively through change, building a culture that encourages open discussion about the issues that affect mental health and wellbeing and making sure managers lead by example through setting a good example for a healthy, happy and productive workplace.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

As a consultant, and even as a mental health clinician back in the day, I have always erred on the side of coaching. In other words, I am much more likely to ask someone to “consider this” as opposed to take the autocratic “do as I say” approach.

Workplace consulting requires me to believe that everyone ultimately has power within themselves to transform their environment. I like to think that, as a coaching leader, I give people a little direction to help them tap into their ability to achieve what they are capable of.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Two people — my parents. They always encouraged me to ask questions, almost to the point of being annoyingly inquisitive. This inquisitiveness took me from health, to law, to business, and ultimately, back to health. Asking questions of the world around me has so far served me well.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Too many folk are miserable at work. This not only affects them personally but it also negatively affects their family lives and the lives of the organizations in which they work. In healthcare, it is even worse — an unhappy healthcare workforce can clearly have dire and life-threatening consequences for the patients ultimately receiving its care.

Yet there are validated interventions that can set organizational and employee wellbeing back on track. To this end, I want my contribution to be a change in the way business thinks about wellbeing that that, eventually, healthcare costs are lower, patient safety is higher and employee wellbeing is enhanced.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Some of the best lessons we ever learn are learned from past mistakes. The error of the past is the wisdom and success of the future.” — Dale Turner

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Effective workplace altruism.

This is likely a niche of the existing social movement “Effective Altruism” — a philosophy that advocates using evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to benefit others.

Job stress costs US employers more than $300 billion annually and may cause 120,000 excess deaths each year. This needs to stop.

Improving the lives of others at work, based on sound evidence and reasoning, needs to become front and center in modern management practices.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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