Executive Wellbeing – The Case For The Health-Savvy Leader

Executive Wellbeing And The Rise Of The Health-Savvy Leader

Executive wellbeing is key to creating a culture of thriving at work

healthy leader feeling energised

The Untapped Potential of Healthy Leadership

There is increasing recognition that CEO’s, senior leaders and team managers have a vital role to play in employee health and wellbeing. This includes walking the talk and role modelling healthy behaviours. But researchers found that organisations  overlook the importance of the leader’s own health and wellbeing and suggest there is huge untapped potential in healthy leadership for fostering, restoring and strengthening wellbeing in the workplace.

In a series of posts, I will explore the link between leadership and organisational wellbeing and offer a unique perspective on what it means to be a health-savvy leader. In this article, I’ll start with the ‘why’ and look at the rationale for more health-savvy leaders in the workplace by answering:

  • What is the link between wellbeing and leadership?
  • How does the wellbeing of leaders impact organisational health?
  • How can we avoid placing additional pressures on leaders whilst recognising the role they play in workplace wellbeing?

What Is The Link Between Executive Wellbeing and Leadership Effectiveness?

Being well and leading well go hand in hand. Its hard to be our best self when our energy is low. When we’re depleted and running on empty, neuroscience has found that we lose access to our executive functions that are (mostly) responsible for planning, prioritisation, decision-making and self-regulation.

Think about that for a moment. The very things that we need our senior leaders to be able to do well are the first things to suffer when leaders are stressed and exhausted. That means you could have the most highly committed, conscientious and skilled leadership team in the world, but if they are depleted, they can’t put those skills into action. This is hardly ideal at a time when leadership is arguable more complex and demanding than ever before.

The impact goes way beyond performance. Interestingly, wellbeing and energy levels are also linked to ethics. We have a greater tendency to lie and behave unethically when we are tired due to what researchers call ‘psychological depletion’. Its also more challenging to be empathetic and remain open and curious to the perspectives of others when our inner batteries are empty. A fatigued, overwhelmed leadership team is a recipe for a culture of defensiveness, fear and intolerance.

And of course, leaders are human beings too. Their wellbeing is not only a means to a greater end. Their health is their ultimate wealth. Being a leader should not need to equal stress, sacrifice and a gradual drift towards ill-health. We need to do more to support executives to lead from a place of wellbeing and vitality.

Leadership Impact On Employee Wellbeing – A Virtuous Circle Or A Perfect Storm?

Stressed leader

Leaders have an impact on the wellbeing of those around them in several different ways – through their leadership style, how they shape a positive work environment, how they support the wellbeing of others and the extent to which they demonstrate looking after their own wellbeing. The latter is key but often overlooked. In a recent Deloitte study of over 2,100 executives and employees, 82% said that seeing leaders taking care of their wellbeing would motivate them to improve their own.

When leaders don’t look after their own health and wellbeing but still continue to go the extra mile to support the wellbeing of their direct reports, it can have a negative impact not only on themselves but on the wellbeing of the whole team. Why? According to researchers, its because it triggers guilt in team members who are aware of how over-stretched their manager is.

When leaders behave in contrast to official wellbeing messages, it erodes trust and reduces the likelihood employees will engage with wellbeing programmes. Research spanning three decades found that leaders’ stress levels negatively impacted on the stress of their team. However, the relationship is not one-way. Leadership behaviour impacts employee wellbeing which then impacts leadership behaviour and so on. This can become either a virtuous or vicious circle.

Exhausted and stressed leaders are associated with higher turnover, lower employee engagement and dysfunctional teams. But then these already stressed leaders have additional challenges to add to their plate to tackle these issues which further adds to their ovewhelm. Their behaviours become even more stressed, rushed and unhealthy and the cycle continues. That’s why without a focus executive wellbeing, all other employee-focused health initiatives are undermined.

Breaking The Cycle – The Case For The Health-Savvy Leader

Too many talented, dedicated and purposeful leaders are fraying at the edges. Perhaps even more so than the employees they are leading. Deloitte (2022) found that while 57% of employees are seriously considering quitting for a more supportive job, nearly seven out of 10 executives are thinking about taking this leap.

What should they do? These senior leaders probably have a good idea of what they should be doing for their health and wellbeing but are so locked into dealing with day-to-day pressures that they don’t realise how far they have drifted into energy-depleting habits and routines. Breaking the cycle means a chance to take stock and re-calibrate.

It is important to say that leaders do not have to morph into ‘perfect’ role models for wellbeing. That is unrealistic and would be counter-productive. Employees need to see that leaders have struggles too. A term that I prefer over ‘healthy leaders’ is ‘the health-savvy leader’.

According to Deloitte, health-savvy executives are ‘ambassadors of hope’. They recognise their role in wellbeing at work rather than delegate that responsibility to other functions. They take a systemic approach and appreciate the interconnections between life and work and between wellbeing, culture, trust and brand. They are committed to creating their own personal wellbeing ambition and to leveraging their role to support the physical, emotional, and mental health of their colleagues.

I will explore the concept of what it means to be a health-savvy leader in my next article in much more depth. But in short, ‘savvy-ness’ to me implies a sense of practical wisdom and thoughtfulness about our health, our habits, our interactions, what we value and how we manage and direct our energy.

What do you think? What does the term ‘health-savvy leader’ mean to you?


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