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We need to prioritise the psychological wellbeing of our leaders

OPINION: Throughout the complexity and uncertainty of the Covid-19 world, the decision-makers in our workplaces have been placed under enormous stress to adapt quickly, support their people, and continue to meet stakeholder and business demands. Leaders have stepped up to meet these challenges but, for many, their own wellbeing has dropped way down the priority list.

Global pandemic or not, leaders regularly cite high work demands, pressure to perform, and a blurring of the line between work and non-work time. It’s clear our leaders need support at times–but what’s most likely to work?

Research about leader mental health and wellbeing is not extensive. In fact, one study from 2017 lamented the fact that leaders are too often left off the research agenda because they are assumed to be tough and psychologically well. This perpetuates a culture where leaders experience pressure to always be at their best.

One senior leader we spoke to leads a team of 100+ employees in Auckland and reports feeling a constant sense of pressure to be always calm and positive and to be looking out for everyone else, while navigating operational deadlines and priorities. He told us that his own work-life balance will take a hit most weeks.

The good news

The limited existing research suggests that, on average, leaders experience higher levels of wellbeing and mental health than do their more junior employees–perhaps surprisingly, considering the varied demands on their shoulders.

Recent research from our team at Umbrella, drawing on data from 4200 New Zealand employees (1000+ of whom are leaders), supports this. Compared to their team members, leaders are less likely to report symptoms of psychological distress and more likely to report they are flourishing, that they are satisfied with their lives, and that they are happy. The data comes from the Umbrella Wellbeing Assessment, a survey used in organisations to assess individual and organisational wellbeing and stress levels, and the work and non-work factors that contribute to these.

Other positive outcomes for leaders shown in this study include their penchant for moving about during the work day and eating regular nutritious meals. Unsurprisingly, leaders see their organisational climate as more positive than do the people they lead, have higher job control and autonomy, and report higher personal resilience, compared to their junior colleagues.

But the picture is not always rosy for leaders.

The concerning aspects

Compared to their team members, leaders experience greater psychological distress from work factors – particularly when it comes to workload and a lack of peer support. In the absence of a supportive peer network, leaders’ workloads are often unrelenting, with other people’s needs leaving very little space for other leadership tasks. One leader we work with recalls a time when her workload was so high that she started getting up at 4am and working for a few hours before her team started the day, just to try and get on top of it.

The emotional load from supporting others is likely to have a flow-on effect for leaders’ personal relationships – with many leaders telling us that their mental and emotional “tank” is empty by the time they arrive home. Leaders more often report difficulties with children and parenthood and lower satisfaction with their work-life balance than do their team members. They are also more likely to turn to alcohol, perhaps as a stress-management tool, with leaders reporting greater difficulty moderating their alcohol intake compared to team members.

A study from 2017 lamented the fact that leaders are too often left off the research agenda because they are assumed to be tough and psychologically well.

At Umbrella, both psychological evidence and our clinical experience tell us that any amount of psychological distress about work is a concern. Psychological distress has been linked to worsening performance at work, weaker work relationships, and serious impairment in the form of brain function, physical health, and mental illness. Since leaders model and set the tone for the culture of their organisation, they directly influence behaviour and performance at the front line. So, when it comes to psychological distress at work, it pays to get it right for our leaders.

How can we be proactive?

The data from our survey point to an opportunity for organisations to prioritise the psychological wellbeing of their leaders (and benefit from the flow-on effect that has on everyone else). We recommend four steps that organisations can take right now:

A targeted focus on improved working conditions:

  • Proactively follow a process of intentional job crafting and work design to enable leaders to better delegate, share responsibilities, and draw clear boundaries so that their work-life balance is protected.
  • Find ways to support leaders to trade off parts of their roles to better match skills and motivations–this produces deeper commitment and wellbeing, and develops leadership skills in those to whom they delegate.

Build better peer connection and emotional support for leaders

Creating opportunities for leaders to come together to learn, establish networks and decompress with peers is so essential. They may be leading very different organisations, but the leadership challenges, that they often have to handle alone, are similar. Strong relationships help to ease internal frictions and serve to deepen connections.

Double down on meaning and purpose

Time and again, research has shown that establishing a connection between organisational strategy, goals and personal job outputs buffers the impact of pressure and stress for leaders (and their teams). Plus, we know that organisations that work with leaders to involve them in strategy development and planning, or that have a clear social purpose, perform better.

Gaynor Parkin is a registered clinical psychologist and the chief executive of psychology wellbeing business Umbrella.

Harness the science of personal wellbeing to buffer psychological distress

Considerable evidence shows that positive wellbeing habits, mental fitness and emotional agility can be trained and coached. Given their protective effect, it is important to maintain these positive habits in leaders and cultivate them where they are missing.

What we found in our data is that there are key challenges that influence a leader’s wellbeing negatively (workload and poor peer support), but there are also protective factors in which leaders excel that mitigate these challenges, such as having job control and autonomy. When it comes to resilience, leaders are more likely to find meaning and purpose in their work, exercise mental fitness over their thoughts (e.g. by holding optimism), and feel that they can manage their emotions. Given the protective effect of these resilient habits, it is important for leaders to maintain them–or cultivate them where they are missing.

One business that Umbrella works with has acted proactively on the wellbeing of their leaders by instigating an organisation-wide training programme that helps leaders to protect and build their own wellbeing and resilience, while also giving them the tools to support the resilience of their team. By being better-equipped to look after their own psychological wellbeing, leaders have the head-room to navigate complexity and uncertainty–through pandemic and beyond–and allow their teams and organisations to likewise flourish.

Gaynor Parkin is a registered clinical psychologist and the chief executive of psychology wellbeing business Umbrella.