Human Sustainability: A Strategic Imperative for HR Leaders

Human sustainability is about helping employees succeed, and does so by aligning business operations with environmental and societal sustainability goals. Ramona Kraft, principal and head of Odgers Berndtson’s German HR leadership practice, and Elaine Roper, head of the board and CHRO practices in Canada, recently explained to Hunt Scanlon Media why human sustainability is a critical focus for HR leaders today!

June 25, 2024 – Human sustainability ensures the long-term well-being, development, and engagement of an organization’s employees. Put into practice, it encompasses initiatives promoting physical, mental, and social health, diversity and inclusion, continuous learning, and ethical labor practices, according to a recent report from Odgers Berndtson’s Ramona Kraft and Elaine Roper. The study explains that human sustainability is about helping individuals thrive, and does so by aligning business operations with environmental and societal sustainability goals.

“The concept is rapidly becoming a central feature across the human resources, people, and culture agendas, with many leaders viewing its implementation as a critical priority – and it’s not hard to see why,” Ms. Kraft explained. “A convergence of global trends, shifting societal expectations, and a greater understanding of what drives long-term growth, is placing the employee at the heart of business success.”

According to a report from Deloitte, 68 percent of employees and 81 percent of the C-suite say improving their well-being is more important than advancing their career. The majority are also considering quitting for a job that better supports their well-being. On the opposite side of those figures, high employee well-being is strongly associated with higher customer loyalty, higher employee productivity, and lower staff turnover – across multiple different industries, a study from the Center for Economic Performance found.

A concerted effort in employee development also improves business outcomes. A report from IBM revealed that 84 percent of workers at high-performing organizations say they receive the training they need to do their jobs well. A focus on human sustainability is also just as beneficial from an external perspective, with 76 percent of consumers more likely to buy from socially responsible organizations, according to the World Economic Forum.

 Ramona Kraft is principal and head of Odgers Berndtson’s German HR leadership practice. She recruits HR leadership positions with a focus on HR development, total reward, talent acquisition, employer branding, employment law and organizational development aspects within the HR function. Ms. Kraft has a large network in the field of human resources. With many years of experience in recruiting CHROs and top HR talent across all industries, she understands the importance of selecting candidates with the right cultural fit into an organization.

“The case for human sustainability is hard to argue with – good outcomes for the employee lead to good outcomes for the business,” said Ms. Roper. “But that doesn’t mean it’s plain sailing for CHROs and businesses.” Below Odgers Berndtson explores how human sustainability is becoming integral to HR leadership, the challenges HR leaders face in its implementation, and how they should approach the concept when looking for new leadership roles.

Seeing the Employee as an Asset Not a Cost

At its core, human sustainability views the employee as an asset not a cost, according to Ms. Kraft. “The degree to which an organization achieves human sustainability is the degree to which it creates value for its employees as human beings,” she said. “Does the workplace leave them with greater health and well-being, stronger skills and employability, opportunities for advancement, and feelings of belonging? All these drive better business outcomes, becoming a mutually reinforcing cycle.”

“HR leaders know this better than anyone; and those we speak to tell us unlocking the full potential of their workforce requires a mindset shift in their organization and among senior business leaders,” Ms. Roper said. “Historically, organizations have implemented processes, technologies, and systems to make their employees better at their work. This mindset shift flips this idea, encompassing an approach that makes work better for humans.”

Related: Sustainability’s Impact on Talent Teams

According to Deloitte, 81 percent of organizations understand this shift is very or critically important. But just 12 percent of executives say their organization is leading in this area, and only 27 percent of workers believe their employer is making any progress in creating value for them. HR is now responsible for bridging this gap and driving change.

A New Priority for HR Leaders

The imperative for human sustainability is not just about achieving a future goal linked to greater business outcomes, but is also about helping HR leaders tackle current people challenges, the Odgers Berndtson report explains. Most workers’ well-being either worsened or stayed the same from 2022 to 2023. Burnout is common, with 48 percent of workers and 53 percent of managers experiencing burnout at work, while nearly half of millennial and Gen Z workers report feeling stressed all or most of the time, according to a report from Microsoft. Likewise, a recent Gallop study found that over half of the global workforce are currently ‘quiet quitting’.

Elaine Roper is head of the board and CHRO practices in Canada for Odgers Berndtson. Her expertise lies in corporate and board governance, human capital strategy planning and implementation, and executive talent management and search. Ms. Roper brings over 35 years of international experience as a CHRO, consultant and board director in the technology, financial services and not-for-profit sectors, in addition to public/private partnership organizations throughout North America, Europe and Asia.

“HR leaders face an uphill battle in driving and embedding human sustainability to meet these challenges,” said Ms. Kraft. “While each organization is unique, human sustainability is underpinned by trusting, unifying, resilient, and purposeful cultures, and managed and driven by people-oriented leaders.”

Odgers Berndtson has provided these guides on building unityfostering organizational resilience, and developing human-centric leadership skills, to help leaders embed these concepts.

Preparing for Your Next HR Leadership Role

“HR leadership candidates now require a deep understanding of human sustainability,” Ms. Roper said. “They should come to interviews prepared to demonstrate this understanding through the initiatives they have successfully implemented.”

“These can include efforts to foster either physical, mental, and social health among employees, promote diversity and inclusion, facilitate continuous learning, or uphold ethical labor practice,” said Ms. Kraft. “Importantly, candidates should be able to articulate how these initiatives have supported employee well-being and contributed to the organization’s financial success. It’s also essential for candidates to demonstrate how they’ve led the cultural shift underpinning these initiatives, and driven the associated mindset shift among senior leaders.”

“Finally, organizations want to see clear success metrics from their HR leaders,” said Ms. Roper. “Candidates should be able to discuss how they measure the impact of human sustainability efforts, using data and employee feedback. In particular, these measurements should be used to continuously improve initiatives.”

Odgers Berndtson delivers executive search, leadership assessment, and development strategies to organizations globally. The firm’s 250-plus partners cover more than 50 sectors and operate out of 59 offices in 29 countries.

Related: Developing Sustainability-Focused Leaders

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief and Dale M. Zupsansky, Executive Editor  – Hunt Scanlon Media

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