3 key steps & common barriers to successful leader-led wellbeing

3 key steps & common barriers to successful leader-led wellbeing

by | Oct 10, 2019 | Business

In the wild, senior elephants work together to create an environment which protects the least experienced, younger members – minimising harm and allowing them to flourish.

In many ways, the task of senior leaders is similar to the adult elephants’ role.

The old idea about workplace wellbeing is that it was antithetical to business success – a fluffy, feelgood gesture made to soften the blow of tighter deadlines and longer hours.

We let our young elephants run free in the wild with little support and hoped they’d survive.

But the tides are changing, and businesses are realising that holistically healthy and well people – especially leaders – are better placed to bring them into the future.

We asked one of our most experienced GLWS practitioners, Martine Beaumont from Select Wellness, to share with us the insights she has gleaned over the past four years of working with senior leaders on building workplace cultures that emphasise proactive and preventative wellbeing practices.

We love Martine’s insights as a psychotherapist, and we love that she’s able to share what she’s learned from doing several hundred wellbeing coaching sessions with senior leaders across Australia, using the GLWS

It’s as close as we can get to bottling her!

Here’s what she had to say.


3 key steps & common barriers to successful leader-led wellbeing

A week hasn’t passed this year without me coming across yet another study or article confirming that organisations whose employees report high levels of wellbeing perform better. An organisation’s share price, revenue, profit, key staff retention, employee engagement and innovation levels have all been shown to improve when employees are thriving and well.

The link between an organisation’s culture and employee wellbeing is now also widely understood, and in particular the crucial role leaders play in cultivating this culture. We no longer have to argue the business case for leaders to lead wellbeing. Now our conversations are about how to best equip leaders to do this.

Here are the 3 key steps to build a culture of ‘leader-led’ wellbeing:

  1. Leading wellbeing begins with the individual. It is only through leaders learning how to manage their own wellbeing that they can genuinely ‘walk the walk’ and model healthy behaviours to their teams. It is the rare employee who will have the courage to take regular breaks or work from home if their leaders never do the same.
  2. Once leaders have a lived experience of the benefits of managing their wellbeing they are then better equipped to actively encourage healthy work practices and embed wellbeing in their teams.
  3. And finally, it is essential that leaders ensure the organisation’s policies and processes are in alignment with and not in opposition to a culture supportive of employee wellbeing.

In our work using the GLWS assessment tool with hundreds of senior leaders from a diverse range of industries, we found there to be three common barriers that sabotage leaders’ well-intentioned efforts to successfully lead wellbeing.


1. Leaders are more likely to have wellbeing blind spots

For a leader to succeed in leading wellbeing they must first stop, reflect on, and question all aspects of their own wellbeing, both at home and at work.

When leaders resist or are unable to honestly assess themselves, it holds them back from genuinely buying into their own wellbeing and that of those around them as a priority.

The struggle leaders have in doing this can be a by-product of their success – they have often lived and worked in unsustainable ways, sometimes for decades. The story they tell themselves is that’s largely what got them there. They then fear losing their hard-fought battle for success should they make even the tiniest of changes to prioritise their wellbeing. They’re locked into their entrenched habits. Resistance builds and they lose the capacity to assess clearly whether these habits are in fact supportive of either their wellbeing or indeed longevity of performance success.

Over time, a rigidity develops in a leader’s habits. They may start to view their behaviours and thought patterns as their fixed personality or identity, rather than viewing them as choices that they make and can unmake. A leader is then less likely to pick up on and adapt to their ever-changing external circumstances, and the ebb and flow of their physical and mental resources. The health and lifestyle habits they got away with at 25 might put their bodies or minds at risk at age 50. And their communication style that worked 20 years ago might detract from the wellbeing of the next generation of employees.

Leaders are at risk of these blind spots being further entrenched by their team members, who in seeking their leader’s approval may emulate their leader’s behaviours and hold back from giving them the honest feedback or reactions that they need.

This might explain the study that found the more experienced a leader is or the more power they have, the lower their self-awareness (and the funnier their jokes ?).


2. ‘My way is your way’

There is nothing more damaging to an employee’s wellbeing than forcing them to engage in a wellbeing initiative against their will.

When it comes to encouraging healthy behaviours and work practices in their teams, we often see leaders make this very well-intentioned mistake (but a mistake nevertheless).

A leader’s excitement at finding the key to improving their personal wellbeing and their natural desire to share this with their team members is understandable. The problem is that human beings are a remarkably diverse bunch, and each one of us has our own unique recipe for managing our wellbeing.

The leader who exerts pressure explicitly or implicitly on their team to compulsorily participate in a lunchtime gym class, intermittent fasting or daily meditation at work (all true and there are many more examples) are missing the point completely.

Good leaders recognise that wellbeing is:

  • subjective and unique to the individual,
  • multi-dimensional across social, cognitive, emotional, and physical needs,
  • and dependent upon the unique circumstances and challenge we face, both at work and at home.

All of us have a different baseline of wellbeing and what we need to prioritise for self-care will differ accordingly.

Rather than suggesting what your team members should be doing, we recommend that leaders encourage employees to reflect on what changes they could make in their home and work lives to improve their wellbeing, and discuss how they as leaders and the organisation can best support them in doing so.

The GLWS framework is a great conversation starter for leaders to use with their teams.


3. Applying ‘old rules’ to the new world

Never before have we been subjected to the level of 24/7 connectedness that we now are.

Evolution is a slow process and the speed at which our lives have changed has not given our brains time to adapt to this stimulation overload. Audrey’s spoken previously about this phenomenon of “brain bombing” and its unprecedented effect on overwhelming us.

We commonly hear leaders citing examples of work practices that they had to cope with in their past work lives, and then expecting their employees to be able to do the same. For example, clearing the inbox every day, getting back to everyone – and often within a rigid timeframe. This approach risks ignoring the very different environment and stresses today’s minds and bodies are subjected to. You only have to look at the increase in rates of anxiety and depression, particularly in the younger generation who have grown up with 24/7 connectivity to see evidence of brains in dire need of a different approach to work and life.

This does not mean leaders have to lower their expectations in terms of output, but rather be open to the variety of different ways their people today might get their work done without harming their wellbeing in the process.

It also points strongly to the need for new world survival mechanisms that teach people how to focus on what’s most important, how to recognise where they add most value, how to align their energy and time with the real priorities, and how to ensure self-care is quarantined regardless of the quantum overload being experienced.

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