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Leadership and wellbeing: How to manage your wellbeing as a leader

A quick search for ‘the impact of leadership responsibility on wellbeing’ will yield plenty of results discussing the influence that managers have on the mental health of their direct reports. While the impact of good or bad leadership on employees is well-documented, the reverse – how leadership roles affect leaders’ own mental health – is far less spoken about. 

Being a leader of people comes with significant pressures, and many can find that those stresses take away from the joy of the job. In fact, new SHRM Mental Health Research found that 33% of people managers don’t believe that their leadership role is worth the stress that comes with it. The strain of completing one’s own job while having to manage poor performance, resolve conflict, make tough decisions, and meet objectives, all while maintaining a professional and composed exterior, can lead to overwhelm, stress, and imposter syndrome. All of which can be damaging to mental and physical wellbeing – and are very unlikely to make you better at your job. 

On top of that, a shocking 82% of new leaders in the UK are “accidental managers,” meaning they have received no formal leadership training. Many of these accidental managers are promoted due to technical capability and are left to figure out the people management side of things for themselves – which is an entirely different skill set and for many, won’t come naturally. 

Emotional wellbeing and leadership skills 

Another unspoken truth is that leadership roles require a high degree of emotional labour. Leaders need to be skilled at managing their feelings and their expressions in real-time whilst also addressing and navigating the emotional needs of their team. 

Furthermore they must be able to build trust in their relationships through both authenticity and professional capability. For human beings, a large part of building trust-based relationships is transparency and authenticity – people respond to others positively if they feel they are seeing the ‘real’ version of them. However, leaders who are too open with their emotions risk undermining their authority and appearing less capable of handling stressful situations effectively – thereby losing the trust of their colleagues. This is a thin line to walk and the balancing act of authenticity and professionalism can be hard to manage at times, especially during periods of higher stress. 

Hence, emotional intelligence is such a critical skill for leaders. It involves the ability to recognise, understand, and manage emotions, thereby better equipping leaders to handle the stresses of their role, build strong trust-based relationships with their teams, and create positive work environments. Developing emotional intelligence in leaders can be a brilliant investment for organisations looking to support leaders with their wellbeing while also improving the organisational culture. 

Leadership trends: loneliness 

It can be lonely at the top – but it doesn’t have to be. The higher one climbs up the organisational hierarchy, the less likely they are to share their challenges and concerns with their peers.  

In fact, research shows that about 40% of people who became an executive in recent years have said that it wasn’t a positive experience.

“Leaders almost always keep their struggles private. Executives typically say very little about the issues they’re facing. Having the confidence of senior management to take such a consequential role means (to most) that the obstacles are theirs to figure out.” 

Matt Pease, Executive Coach

Could organisations being doing more to support their senior leaders? The likely answer is yes. At a recent HR conference, a room of about 40 HR leaders were asked who among them felt that they were doing enough to support their executives. Not a single hand went up, and most of them admitted they were currently doing nothing. 

To be clear, this is not because they don’t care; the reasons behind this lack of support stem from commonly held beliefs about senior leadership, such as: 

  1. Executives should be able to figure it out 
  1. Coaching for every executive is too expensive 
  1. The jobs are too individualised for broad-brush training 

Organisations that are proactive about supporting their leaders will always reap the benefits of it. After all, the job of leadership is simply ‘imperfect people leading imperfect people’. Just because executives have reached a high level of leadership does not mean that they are any less human or any less in need of personal and professional support. 

Self-care and leadership 

Transitioning from an individual contributor to a leadership role can be a shock. Suddenly, you’re not only responsible for your own output but for other people’s as well. Supporting them to manage their projects, providing them with valuable feedback and guidance, and encouraging them to take care of their wellbeing can mean the leader’s own self-care gets put on the backburner. In fact, 40% of people managers said their mental health declined when they entered a managerial or leadership role. 

It is all too easy for leaders to neglect their own health and prioritise others’ – it can feel like the selfless choice to make. But is landing oneself in overwhelm, for the sake of supporting others, a good thing for the individual or the business? Probably not.  

It’s about time that leaders adopted a ‘put your own mask on first’ mindset. Being habitual and dedicated to self-care doesn’t mean taking bubble baths and doing face masks. It means taking regular breaks, not working crazy hours to micromanage somebody else’s project, setting boundaries, and not attempting to do everything in isolation. Aside from the impact on the leader, it is dangerous to role-model or idealise neglecting personal wellbeing, and it can have huge ramifications on the culture and expectations of the team. 

The bottom line is, a team can only be high-performing if its leaders are proactively taking care of their wellbeing. Which brings us onto wellbeing culture.  

How to create a wellbeing culture 

Most organisations will claim to prioritise the wellbeing of their employees – so why are workers and leaders still struggling so often with their mental and physical health? The issue lies in the gap between what organisations say and the reality of their practices. While organisations may boast about their wellbeing initiatives, the real measure of success is whether these initiatives empower individuals to take ownership of their wellbeing. 

For a wellbeing culture to be truly effective, organisations must create an environment where taking charge of one’s wellbeing is not just permitted but actively encouraged. This environment must balance psychological safety with personal accountability. 

Psychological safety is crucial for individuals to feel comfortable expressing their needs. For instance, if an employee is experiencing burnout, they should feel safe to voice this concern without fear of judgment or repercussion. However, psychological safety alone is not enough. Personal accountability is equally important. The employee must also take responsibility for understanding the causes of their burnout and, with the support of their organisation, develop a plan to prevent it from recurring. 

In essence, a genuine wellbeing culture requires an environment where individuals feel safe to speak up about their needs, and are encouraged to take proactive steps towards managing their health. This dual focus ensures that wellbeing initiatives are not simply symbolic but lead to meaningful improvements in the mental and physical health of leaders. 

Training and development for wellbeing in leaders 

Taking accountability for one’s wellbeing can require a deep understanding of the self and one’s own needs. Surface-level wellness training is unlikely to create a culture of leaders taking proactive care for their wellbeing. That’s why it is critical for development to go deeper.  

When organisations genuinely provide the time and space for leaders to get to know themselves better, and they support the development of critical people leadership skills, they will alleviate a large portion of the emotional and mental burden that comes with leadership responsibility. 

To properly support leaders, organisations should strive to create cultures of accountability and psychological safety. They should invest in the proper level of development for their leaders, which can be game-changing to their level of success. An investment in their leaders’ wellbeing will not only benefit the individuals, but will also be a strategic decision for the organisation as it will boost engagement, retention, and performance. 

To learn more about how leadership development can be game-changing when it comes to leaders’ wellbeing and organisational culture, take a look at our corporate programmes page. 





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