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People & Culture

Human Sustainability: A Strategic Imperative for CHROs

5 min read

Ramona Kraft, Principal and Head of our German HR Leadership Practice, and Elaine Roper, Head of the Board and CHRO Practices in Canada, explain why human sustainability is a critical focus for HR leaders.

Human sustainability ensures the long-term wellbeing, 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. 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 HR, people, and culture agendas, with many leaders viewing its implementation as a critical priority – and it’s not hard to see why. 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.

68% of employees and 81% of the C-suite say improving their wellbeing is more important than advancing their career. The majority are also considering quitting for a job that better supports their wellbeing. On the opposite side of those figures, high employee wellbeing is strongly associated with higher customer loyalty, higher employee productivity, and lower staff turnover – across multiple different industries.

A concerted effort in employee development also improves business outcomes. 84% 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% of consumers more likely to buy from socially responsible organizations.

The case for human sustainability is hard to argue with – good outcomes for the employee lead to good outcomes for the business.

But that doesn’t mean it’s plain sailing for CHROs and businesses. Below we explore 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. The degree to which an organization achieves human sustainability is the degree to which it creates value for its employees as human beings. Does the workplace leave them with greater health and wellbeing, 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. 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.

81% of organizations understand this shift is very or critically important. But just 12% of executives say their organization is leading in this area, and only 27% 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.

Most workers’ wellbeing either worsened or stayed the same from 2022 to 2023. Burnout is common, with 48% of workers and 53% of managers experiencing burnout at work, while nearly half of millennial and Gen Z workers report feeling stressed all or most of the time. Likewise, over half of the global workforce are currently ‘quiet quitting’.

HR leaders face an uphill battle in driving and embedding human sustainability to meet these challenges. While each organization is unique, human sustainability is underpinned by trusting, unifying, resilient, and purposeful cultures, and managed and driven by people-oriented leaders. We’ve provided these guides on building unity, fostering 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. 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 practices. Importantly, candidates should be able to articulate how these initiatives have supported employee wellbeing 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. 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.



Get in touch. Follow the links below to discover more, or contact our dedicated leadership experts from your local Odgers Berndtson office here

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