What is an unbossed work culture? The corporate landscape is changing for employee well-being

Gone are the days when managers and executives had to be the sole source of knowledge and dictate how others should work. Picture: Pexels/Edmond Dantès

Gone are the days when managers and executives had to be the sole source of knowledge and dictate how others should work. Picture: Pexels/Edmond Dantès

Published Sep 5, 2023


The burden of workplace stress across several occupations is well known. However, recent studies have shed light on who might be worst hit by stress at work – women.

Mental health and physical well-being are top priorities for businesses looking to attract and maintain top talent. These elements are especially important for companies that are intent on supporting women and advancing gender diversity.

Recently recognised as South Africa's Number 1 Top Employer in the pharmaceutical industry for 2023 by the prestigious Top Employers Institute, Novartis has established itself as an advocate for an employee-first approach.

The country president of Novartis South Africa, Rachel O’Neale, believes that stress hampers productivity: “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

We recognise the importance of employees feeling fully charged to deliver their best work. As a result, the company prioritises ample time off for self-care and attending to family responsibilities.

According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, women are more likely than men to report physical and emotional symptoms of stress. Headaches, tears, and upset stomachs plague women at higher rates than their male counterparts.

O’Neale believes that openly discussing women’s mental health and physical well-being in the workplace is crucial for bringing about fundamental improvements in their lives.

“This mindset has become integral to how Novartis functions as 75% of their South African-based associates are female, with the executive team at 75% female.”

This approach further allows women to better set priorities, striking a better, healthier balance between work and personal obligations, explained O’Neal.

In the ever-evolving landscape of workplace dynamics and fostering employee well-being, the concept of an “unbossed” work culture has emerged as a game-changer.

This innovative approach promotes autonomy, trust and open communication, shifting away from traditional hierarchical structures.

O’Neale notes that they understand that employees thrive when given the freedom to make decisions and take ownership of their work. The unbossed culture promotes trust and collaboration, allowing employees to unleash their full potential.

By breaking free from rigid regulations, employees can find their own path to success while contributing to the company’s mission of providing better health care for all.

That being said, the seamless transition women have made in embracing the unbossed approach has allowed women to excel in an environment where they have the freedom to decide how, where, and when they complete their tasks, explained O’Neale, noting that this approach taps into women’s inner strength and commitment to delivering exceptional health care.

Novartis South Africa’s head of communications and engagement for Middle East and Africa, Sibonile Dube, explains that the unbossed culture replaces the traditional hierarchy approach to corporate culture, which limits innovation, creativity and problem-solving because it entails top management setting the company’s culture, and employees at lower levels simply following it.

“Our unbossed working environment offers flexibility to how people work, where appropriate. This has enhanced well-being and collaboration, while fostering connectedness, developing our talent, stimulating creativity and driving innovation. Being unbossed is a more efficient alternative to a hierarchical culture as it cuts the layers and fosters innovative teams,” said Dube.

Gone are the days when managers and executives had to be the sole source of knowledge and dictate how others should work.

Pointing to the diverse experiences, skill sets, and expertise of its employees, the unbossed method places the team at the top, with leaders acting as support, mentors and guides.

This approach allows employees, particularly women, to become experts in their fields and thrive professionally, O’Neal said.

She added: “Empowered employees are often more positive toward their jobs, confident in their own abilities, and freer to experiment when experienced colleagues reach out to teach and support them.

“Combined with a highly successful unbossed work approach and increased freedom of choice, staff are reaching new heights in managing a wide range of common and rare illnesses while ensuring that employees are healthy, happy, and safe.”