New year, new job? Expert reveals workplace culture red flags as Kiwis job hunt in droves post-holidays

Sunday scaries, bare minimum Mondays and quiet quitting. Most people know how draining a bad job can be, and research shows January is when people tend to do something about it.   

Recently released data by Trade Me Jobs shows Kiwis are more likely to hunt for a job in January than any other time of year. In fact, the week starting on January 22 is the most popular time for job-seeking in Aotearoa.    

And with low unemployment rates, Kiwis can choose the most important things when looking for a job. While money generally tops the list, data released in 2023 by Seek showed workplace culture and well-being is also a top priority.    

The data showed 68 percent of New Zealanders think workplace culture is important with a whopping 52 percent saying they would turn down a job if they learned a company had a poor culture and 77 percent say they've left a job or would leave because of it.  

But while the salary is agreed on before you start, ensuring somewhere has a good culture can be harder - but it's not impossible.    

Workplace wellbeing programs and initiatives are fairly new but clinical psychologist and CEO of Umbrella Dougal Sutherland says they are becoming increasingly important - especially with younger people joining the workforce.  

There is a good reason Generation Z is prioritising wellbeing - a bad culture can make life miserable, Sutherland said.    

"It can have a really draining and negative impact on all aspects of your well-being - physical, mental and social," he said. "Many of us have had that experience and even if it's just a bad period at work, then you know how much that affects the rest of your day.  

"It's probably the place you spend the most time in your life, apart from asleep in your bed. If you want to feel not only okay at work but even better, if you want to feel like you are being stretched and thriving and really advancing in your life, a positive workplace culture is really crucial for that to happen."  

But Sutherland conceded it can be hard to spot signs of a bad culture until it's too late.  

He said the best approach is searching for lots of little clues, not a silver bullet.   

You're putting your detective head on and looking for clues. Some of that might be things like if you're looking around the office, what is the general vibe? What's the buzz of the office? Are people chatting, talking, laughing? What's the vibe that you get from the people around there?"   

Sutherland said there are also things to look out for even before you set foot in the building.    

The green flags 

The most obvious green flags are companies that have dedicated well-being programs and allowances, unlimited sick leave, EAP services, comprehensive parental leave and flexible working arrangements.    

Sutherland said in general companies with flexible working arrangements trust their staff, which often translates to a good culture.    

"At the moment I think a bit of an acid test is an organisation's policy around working from home. That's quite a good sort of indicator with perhaps organisations who are more aware of culture and wellbeing having a lot more flexibility and around those working from home policies." 

Sutherland says looking around an office can tell you a lot about the culture.
Sutherland says looking around an office can tell you a lot about the culture. Photo credit: Getty Images

One of the best signs is if current employees speak highly of the company, although Sutherland said it can be hard to find someone to ask.    

"Every organisation wants to present itself well when they're trying to recruit new staff. So of course, they're going to want to look really good," he said.  

"If you can talk to people that already work there, then that can be really useful, although it's not always possible to do that, but that can be a really helpful thing to get it from the horse's mouth - what's it actually like working there?"   

Mental health days and a well-being allowance are also good signs a company cares about employees' happiness.    

"I'm not saying that having a wellbeing allowance is excellent but it does indicate that the organisation has been thinking about wellbeing."  

Sutherland said a good workplace culture is not only good for business but it's becoming a real drawcard for employers trying to attract staff, especially with younger generations.   

"We know when staff are doing well, a business does well so it's a double benefit really.  

"If a workplace treats their people well and they have a great workplace culture, usually those are the businesses that are performing well so it has benefits for both workers and employers.   

The red flags 

Sutherland said the biggest red flag is companies without wellbeing policies at all.   

But less obvious red flags include high turnover and even possibly the average age of employees.   

"If they just say, 'Oh, we really believe in [wellbeing]' but don't have any policies then that suggests an organisation that isn't really invested in that sort of thing."   

Sutherland suggested asking why a position is vacant and how often they have vacancies to find out whether there is a lot of turnover.    

"You're wanting to try and avoid an organisation with a high turnover rate. If you have lots of people coming and going, that suggests that it might not be something great about the culture."

Speaking to a current employee can be a great way to get a feel for the culture.
Speaking to a current employee can be a great way to get a feel for the culture. Photo credit: Getty Images

The age range is the last possible red flag on Sutherland's list because he said it could indicate less of a focus on wellbeing.    

"We're seeing a bit of a generational shift as people who've been in the workforce for 30 or 40 years often don't perhaps place the same value on wellbeing. So it's a bit of a new trend coming through but that will hopefully keep going as that age group of workers progresses through the workforce.   

"Businesses or organisations who have quite a significant proportion of younger employees often are a bit more switched on to well-being than companies with an older workforce."  

The golden age for workplace wellbeing

While it's easy to overlook workplace wellness when job hunting, Sutherland says now is the time to be thinking about it.    

It's probably a golden age for it now because with a low unemployment rate people looking for jobs can pick and choose.  

"If we see an increase in unemployment rates and the pendulum swings back more towards businesses and organisations, then whilst it will still remain important, there may be less ability for people looking for a new job to be able to pick and choose because jobs will be more scarce.  

"I think at the moment it's a really good time to be looking for those places with good workplace culture because you've got some choice at the moment."