Wellbeing at work is a hot topic these days, but it’s no joke.
Recent research in Australia by BeyondBlue found that 21% of people took time off work in the last 12 months because they felt stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy. This statistic rose to 46% for people who considered their workplaces to be “mentally unhealthy”.
Might just be an Australian problem?
Let’s look in the US. Research by the American Institute of Stress found that 83% of US workers suffer from workplace stress. And only 43% of people surveyed thought that their employers cared about their work-life balance.
Not great reading. To be honest, you probably don’t need stress statistics to tell you that it’s a problem.
There are many more studies, and your own experience probably tells you that stress and wellbeing at work is a real issue.
There Are Reasons to Be Optimistic About Wellbeing at Work
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Awareness of the issue seems to be growing too.
Even people who focus on the almighty dollar are recognising that the effects of stress are costing our businesses millions of dollars, when people perform poorly at work, or simply don’t show up.
Meditation is on the rise, too. Research compiled by TheGoodBody indicates that the number of people practicing meditation has tripled since 2012 (and I’m one of them!).
The reason I feel this is significant is because people seem to be growing in the awareness that we need to slow down, to speed up. The frenetic pace of life is too high, so we need to chill out.
I feel that this is a positive trend. Many more people are taking up activities like mindfulness, meditation and yoga in order to better cope with the world’s stressors.
But that’s not good enough.
In my mind, people shouldn’t *need* to have to work hard preparing themselves for the impacts of work.
Prevention is better than cure. And the best people who can safeguard wellbeing at work are thoughtful leaders like you.
How Leaders Can Support Wellbeing at Work
I’ve worked in organisations that offer free yoga classes while overloading everyone with work at the same time.
I’ve worked with leaders who say “everything is a priority” and push ten major initiatives, only for five of them to remain incomplete at the end of the year.
Personally, I’m sick of it. So let’s talk about some ways that leaders can support wellbeing at work.
1. Set Priorities – a Limited Number of Them
Let’s stop the rubbish where we pretend that everything is a top priority. It isn’t.
Leaders often have a big list of things they want to accomplish. When you try to do all of them at once, wellbeing at work is likely to suffer.
And it stands to reason that the quality of the work you do suffers too, when you try to do too much of it.
If you do accomplish everything on your long list, you run the risk of burning out your team. That means next year, you’ll need a new team, or some way to bring back the motivation of the people who stay.
If you don’t accomplish everything, you’ll feel like a failure. Seems like either way leads to a poor outcome.
Let’s say you really want to achieve five big things this year. How about you try for the top three, instead?
And guess what? If you are doing really well with the top three, you can try adding another one!
2. Align Your Key Stakeholders
One big mistake that many leaders make when trying to support wellbeing at work is that they go it alone. They focus on themselves and their team, but forget to involve other key players.
If you’re trying to set priorities, push back on unreasonable workloads or just get your people going home at a reasonable hour, you need to make sure other people are on the same page.
These people might include your own boss, or others that work with your team. It’s important to let them know what you’re trying to do, and how they can play a part.
This helps to avoid any nasty surprises.
Let’s look at a simple example.
You’re setting three clear priorities for your team. You want these to be the focus, and everything else should wait.
Instead of leaving it up to your people to push back if someone tries to get them to work on something other than these three priorities, you can set the scene first.
You might have a meeting with your manager, to let her know what the priorities are, and why they’re important. Then you’ll meet with a colleague who deals with your team frequently and let them know too.
When your team needs to push back, your manager and your colleague already know what you’re trying to do. Sure, you may need to do some negotiation. But at least they won’t be surprised at what you’re trying to accomplish.
In other words, don’t leave it to your team to push back. Help them out by letting the key people know what’s going on first.
3. Support Wellbeing at Work By Making Time For Your Team
One way that some leaders try to protect their teams is by being a shield. In other words, they take the hits from others in the organisation so the team can get on with the work.
Unfortunately, this might mean you’re busy all day with no time for your team. Absent leaders can play a big part in making their people feel vulnerable and exposed, like they have no support.
Your intentions might be good, but if you’re always too busy, you’re doing harm.
When your time is being squeezed, often one of the first things to be cut is time spent supporting and meeting with team members, especially 1 to 1.
But it’s the 1 to 1 support, coaching and mentoring that helps your team members grow, develop and feel supported.
We forget this, because it’s intangible. We can’t see our team members developing before our eyes. But we can see that we’ve attended a meeting.
Don’t let this fool you. Supporting your team and meeting with them frequently may feel like it isn’t achieving anything. You are playing an important supporting role, especially if you can improve the effectiveness of how you run your 1 on 1 meetings.
You can read more about how to improve your 1 to 1s here: 1 to 1 Meetings: Let’s Make Them Better.
4. Be a Role Model
You might not feel like it, but you’re a role model for your team.
They take cues from you. They see what you do, and they learn what you want, and how you like to work. Team members watch how you show up every day, and they take your lead.
If you’re overworked and stressed every day, they’ll begin to think that’s normal. They might not agree with it, but they’ll start to believe that this is how the organisation needs you to function.
When you work longer and longer hours, people will start to think that this is what you value in your people too. If you send emails at night and on weekends, your people will think this is what’s required.
Conversely, if you attend the weekly lunchtime yoga class, take breaks and leave work on time, they’ll start to see that they can do that too.
Of course, your team members are individuals. Nobody can force them to do anything. They are independent and they don’t need to follow your example.
But the actions of their manager can be a powerful force influencing how they show up.
I’ve led team members who have felt stressed based on believing that my expectations were that everybody should work long hours. Even though this wasn’t the case, it made me realise that we can never underestimate our impact in the workplace.
5. Don’t Buy Into the BS
There is a lot of BS going around in our workplaces. These are commonly held beliefs that destroy wellbeing at work.
People might not speak them out loud, but there are many norms that people seem to hold as the truth.
Here are some that you might observe:
- The most valuable people are the ones who are busy all day, in back to back meetings
- Taking breaks is lazy. Working through lunch is a sign of a “hard worker”
- 1 on 1 meetings with team members are a waste of time
- Working late is a sign of dedication and hard work
- Multi-tasking is more efficient (it’s not)
- People who run around fixing problems are doing an awesome job (what about preventing the issues before they occur?)
- Starting work early means you’re dedicated to your job.
Those are just a handful of examples. There are many more.
I believe that we can do a good job at work, without burning ourselves out. And that taking time to pause, plan, reflect and focus is powerful and effective.
You should be able to be a leader and enjoy your work.
Overwork, stress and burnout don’t need to be a badge of honour.
Don’t believe the BS.
As leaders, it starts and ends with us.
So let’s support wellbeing at work, and start creating environments where people can enjoy their work, grow, develop and build thriving organisations.
It’s not impossible. It takes courage and commitment.
So let’s get to it.