The world seemed a dark place as 2023 drew to a close. In the UK, the struggles are felt in everyday ways as the cost of living crisis worsens. We feel the lingering impacts of the pandemic on our wellbeing and that of our children’s mental health. Our public services are limping along, barely in survival mode. Division is on the rise, and blame, and even hate, create a hostile environment for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

And then, an event happening somewhere else in the world, requires that we stop whatever it is that we are doing and turn our attention urgently, to work out what we can do in our own small way to help. I'm talking, of course, about the ongoing horrifying events in Israel and Gaza which have posed some critical questions for leaders in all kinds of different organisations. 

In the process, it brings a fresh focus on what ethical leadership in action actually looks like and it's raised many questions. At New Ways, the consultancy that I lead, we've been working closely with leaders to help them navigate this even more complicated new world. We've explored questions including: What is the role of the organisation in supporting trauma and wellbeing in a connected world where all kinds of different traumatic events and crises are affecting our workforce? What does it mean to support wellbeing at work when people are already stretched to the limit and working at capacity? In this new climate, how can we build cultures of belonging at work that really include everyone and create a safe environment for every identity?  

A new workplace context

Looking at the bigger picture, it seems that we are in a transitionary time – in our relationship to work and to the expectations that we have of our employers and leaders, and this will have important implications for ethical leadership in 2024. Interestingly, trust in workplaces, relative to governments and media, is at an all-time high1 but this comes with new expectations of how our leaders behave and what they speak up about. There is a desire to see leaders who are more socially aware, responsive to the different needs of groups, who genuinely care about the societal issues that are affecting a challenged and not-so-Great Britain. People are asking their leaders to speak out about things that matter, and to work with employees in partnership to create change within the workplace when issues arise. This is about ethical leadership in action. 

Moreover, some might say we are in a wellbeing crisis. The impact of adjusting to remote and hybrid work, and what this means for workload and work interactions, the legacy of trauma from the pandemic, and the everyday reality of living through rather depressing times is being seen in everyday ways in workplaces. People are stretched and overwhelmed. Recent wellbeing research by Deloitte2 shared some stark data highlighting the extent to which employees were finding work more stressful, exhausting, and even contributing to loneliness, compared to earlier years. People’s capacity to cope is even more concerning, with 36% believing that their managers don’t care about their wellbeing, with others finding rigid structures and policies, unsupportive cultures and inadequate training, blocks to better health.  

What’s on leaders’ minds?

At New Ways, we hosted a series of conversations with leaders to explore what the Israel-Gaza conflict meant for their workforce. We looked at how they could support their people, how to talk about the conflict, and discussed the issues that were emerging in their workplaces around their employees’ experience of belonging and inclusion. We also shared our wider learnings about what staff support should look like during times of high stress and high need, when enabling safe environments and genuine belonging for all is all the more complex. 

Collective trauma

Leaders shared the collective trauma they were observing in their teams and also experiencing themselves. There’s a whole array of emotions that don’t really have a place within the workplace – anger, despair, rage, hopelessness, grief, sadness – and many of us are feeling them, yet these are emotions that have no place to go. This needs to be understood in the context of how it can trigger generational and historical trauma from the Holocaust for Jewish colleagues – and there will also be echoes for other team members who have been affected by war. The desire and need for collective moments of healing were palpable but it was hard to see how this could be facilitated in a safe way, because there was so much fear of sharing different views and beliefs which could harm or upset others.   

The taboo of religion

While ethical leaders will focus on different aspects of equity, diversity and inclusion, religion hasn’t always been central, perhaps apart from the provision of spaces for prayer and awareness of religious dates. The well-known phrase, ‘avoid politics and religion’ denotes the underlying risk that can be associated with it. This has meant that not everyone is clear about who needs support and how to offer it.  

The problem with silence

In our conversations with leaders, we noticed that there was a lot of fear stopping people from talking openly or freely. There was a sense of overwhelm and sometimes shame at not feeling more equipped as leaders, a longing for a deeper understanding of the history and its modern-day consequences in our globally connected, decolonising world. There was also anxiety about being seen to take sides, which sometimes highlighted personal conflicts.  

This has created uncertainty about psychological safety and belonging, especially for those with personal connections to the conflict. People reported feeling alone, unsure of what their colleagues felt or where they stood, questioning whether they would understand each other’s experiences or see them as valid, unable to share or express feelings and lacking solid ground on the shared values that once existed.

Multiple truths

Of course, if we want to create environments of true belonging, we must get better at acknowledging and respecting multiple truths at work. This means moving away from binaries and embracing the grey and messy. This conflict has many complexities – violence and war, historical trauma, national guilt, decolonisation, racism and antisemitism. There are various narratives informing beliefs. This isn’t to say that leaders cannot have a point of view, but supporting the growth of our ability to work with multiple truths at work is vital. This will need investment in developing new interpersonal skills to give people the tools to do this. 

Collective wellbeing

The shared experience is the traumatic impact and the need for healing. While this may not be the realm of organisational responsibility, questions do need to be asked about to what extent do workplaces want to support their teams when crisis is increasingly becoming the norm? Burying our heads in a myth that separation of personal and professional is possible, will only lead to more silence and separation. There is also an ethical question facing us all about our need to up our game when it comes to supporting wellbeing, and shifting the narrative from personal responsibility to collective growth. In the process, we might be encouraged to explore different ways of giving this support, such as embracing somatic practices and perhaps healing modalities which are not typically used in the workplace context. 

Finding new depths of belonging

Where there is division, we need people with the skills to bridge differences in order to build firm foundations to create cultures of belonging. We need to be developing leaders and managers to be bridge builders, with new skills to help people overcome the ways in which we bring bias to those who are like us and resistance to those who are different. Shared values are important in any organisation, and we need to find ways to foster these in a more fundamental way because it helps to bring people together around a shared purpose and way of behaving at work.  

A way to lead

Ethical leadership is about so much more than being a good person or a strong role model with good morals. In 2024, it demands that we explore how our sense of morality, responsibility and ethics are shaped by our lived experience, our bias and our workplace culture which is based on an outdated notion of work. We need a healthy questioning of how centuries of putting ‘the West’ at the centre impacts all our ideas and beliefs of what is right and good. These are big questions for anyone leading, as well as for those choosing where to work. But they are essential questions for anyone who is involved in creating a sense of belonging in our workplaces, which after all, is really a collective project for us all.


1 Edelman. 2023 Edleman Trust Barometer, Special Report: Trust at Work.; 2023. special-report-trust-at-work.
2 Parrett G. The green room, by Deloitte. How do we create work that’s good for our wellbeing? [Podcast.] 2023. pages/about-deloitte-uk/articles/the-green-room-podcast-episode.html?episode=35#/the-green-room-podcast-how-do-we-create-work-thats-good. html (accessed 9 November 2023).