You know good leaders are good for their team’s wellbeing and performance. But did you know a leader’s own wellbeing is a critical determinant of his or her effectiveness?
Unfortunately, the relevance of leader wellbeing has almost escaped attention – few studies are done on whether leadership roles promote or undermine wellbeing.
What we do know is, when leaders cope poorly with their roles, they suffer diminished emotional, behavioural or energetic wellbeing. They’re also less likely to be effective. The resulting unproductive and destructive behaviours then adversely influence their followers’ wellbeing and performance.
As many of you know from firsthand experience, being a leader isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
This bothers us. So, we wanted to get some facts on the table to help you better support the leaders you work with. With this firmly in mind, we began investigating the literature on leadership, work stress and related topics to answer a single question:
Is the life of a leader more blessing than curse?
To cut a long and nuanced story short, we found:
- Being in a leadership role consistently attracts both heightened job demands (bad for your wellbeing) and heightened levels of job control (good for your wellbeing).
- Being a leader has a countervailing influence on wellbeing.
- Life as a leader is a mixed blessing.
Higher job demands versus higher job control – can one offset the other?
Is the stress of increased job demands counterbalanced by increased autonomy and freedom? Is it possible to reconcile the conflicting views? Is the rough compensated by the smooth?
It’s a fine line between pleasure and pain, so let’s take a closer look at these different influences on whether leaders feel they are better or worse off as a function of being in their senior roles:
- Job demands = quantitative and qualitative workload = the pain. Leaders experience increased role scope, longer hours and extra responsibilities, with more complexity, more challenging stakeholders to manage, increased need to support and look after followers, greater task fragmentation, more exposure to interpersonal conflict and more pressure to lead change and roll with ambiguity. This results in a generally larger suite of duties frequently detrimental to hedonic wellbeing – causing diminished pleasure and increased pain, which in turn have a negative effect on overall wellbeing outcomes.
In short, higher job demands are frequently associated with lower wellbeing.
- Job control = extent of discretion, autonomy, power and agency = the pleasure. Leaders often derive increased meaning, sense of achievement, fulfillment, enrichment and growth as a result of elevated job control – consistent with the concept of self‐actualisation and achieving one’s full potential.
In short, higher job control is associated with higher eudaimonic wellbeing.
As a leader, ask yourself if your role is:
- Positively related to your wellbeing due to greater job control?Leaders who feel their organisation ‘backs them’ (i.e. empowers them with the freedom and mandate to get on and do what’s needed) are more likely to feel fulfilled.Despite being physically tired (if job demands are also high), you’re likely to feel highly engaged, that your life is enriched by your job, and that life as a leader provides you with a strong sense of purpose and meaning. We often come across leaders who ‘love’ what they do, and for whom this is a strong compensating factor for the sacrifices made.
- Negatively related to your physical and psychological wellbeing due to increased job demands? Leaders for whom the demands placed on them outstrip their capacity to deliver will struggle. Vitality and energy will be low, and balance and boundaries at risk.If this is you, it’s probably time to discuss your energy, time, priority management, your delegation skills and put in a bid for more resources or a change in expectations. The risk of depletion and burnout are high.
What’s the best-case scenario?
Whether it’s a good day in the office or a bad one, and whether a leadership role is net positive or net negative over the longer term often comes back to the interplay between these 2 factors of job control and job demands, and our perceptions thereof.
The best-case scenario for most of us, is one where elevated job demands are ‘actively managed’ and occur within a context where we feel we enjoy high levels of personal agency, control and autonomy. As a coach, I feel this is the right side of the pleasure-pain relationship to orient our clients towards.
10 ways to ensure being a leader isn’t detrimental to wellbeing.
For the HRD and OD, L&D practitioners, the implications of ‘mixed-blessing leadership roles’ are clear. To ensure your leaders are more blessed than cursed, we recommend the following tips and strategies:
- Monitor the tipping point of what can be reasonably expected. Leaders who experience chronically high job demand levels tend to eventually cross the threshold of stability, experiencing diminished capacities that compromise their ability to lead effectively.
- Identify that limiting leaders’ job demands and fostering their recovery is critical to significant ROI. Most organisations invest a great deal in selecting, training and developing leaders at various hierarchical levels, but they don’t also support wellbeing in a targeted or meaningful way. Ensure organisations’ significant investment in leaders isn’t compromised by low leader wellbeing levels.
- Be aware that leaders’ job demands may be a crucially overlooked variable in understanding leader behaviours. Since job demand levels experienced by leaders tend to be very high, it follows these may be a significant determinant of how leadership behaviour is directed toward followers and stakeholder groups.
- Ensure leaders aren’t over‐burdened and have ample opportunities for rest and recovery. The higher job demand levels reported by leaders suggests it may be useful for organisations to look at mental health recovery days, flexible working practices, team down-time days, compulsory use of annual leave and regular and fairly distributed leave, etc.
- Use planned recovery periods as a preventative strategy critical to ensuring demands don’t precipitate the chronically elevated physiological states that lead to poor physical wellbeing.
- Consider and monitor leaders’ job control perceptions as a predictor of likely wellbeing levels. Although job control tends to be high among most leaders, given the high levels of uncertainty they face on a daily basis and the acute need for discretion, very high levels of perceived control may be essential for effective leadership.
- Where perceived job control is low, regard this as a very serious issue. Whilst it’s hopefully only a minority who experience a lack of autonomy, as any high achiever who has worked for an overcontrolling and untrusting boss will testify, lacking freedom to operate and achieve is an insidious impediment to wellbeing.
- Provide more opportunities for leaders to have decision latitude. This seems critically important. Findings show that, on average, high job control levels offset the adverse influence of leadership on hedonic wellbeing.
- Look after and support new leaders carefully. If you work with new leaders or those transitioning into leadership roles, recognise they face a very challenging period of adjustment and may initially be discouraged from continuing their leadership career. While those transitioning into leadership roles tend to report an increase and maintained elevation of both job control and job demand, encouragingly, control perceptions continue to increase throughout the first year.
- Equip the next generation of aspiring leaders to better anticipate the longer-term costs of their career path and help them make more informed career choices.
A leader’s impact on followers is contingent on his or her own wellbeing. And that means we should be greatly concerned with what’s impacting that wellbeing.
Even more importantly, understanding how best to support leaders to be and stay at their best can lead to greater wellbeing at work for everyone involved.
Please drop us a note back to share your views and experiences about whether being in a leadership role is a positive or negative contributor to wellbeing, and any suggestions you can add to our list of recommendations above.
Li, W., Schaubroeck, J. M., Xie, J. L., & Keller, A. C. (2018). Is being a leader a mixed blessing? A dual‐pathway model linking leadership role occupancy to well‐being. Journal of Organizational Behaviour.
Barling, J., & Cloutier, A. (2017). Leaders’ mental health at work: Empirical methodological and policy directions. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 22(3), 394–406.