Why managers need to lead by example to protect staff wellbeing

Leaders are more stretched and overworked than ever, says Gosia Bowling, but there are simple ways they can role model healthy behaviour to their teams

Within society, a culture of overworking is evolving, with long hours and extreme exhaustion symbolising professional success. Research shows employees are putting in an average of nine hours' unpaid overtime per week.

Many of us simply work long hours to keep up with workloads, pay off debt, or so we’re first in line for that dream promotion.

However, for some employees that adopt a culture of long, intense work hours, there’s often a performative element involved. Overwork can be seen as a status symbol, signalling the pathway towards employee success.

The added impact of Covid has meant that many individuals across organisations are now overworking, including managers and those in other senior positions.

Regrettably, furlough schemes and mass redundancies have resulted in tighter deadlines, increased workloads and increased fears surrounding job security. Consequently, managers are experiencing heightened strain as they take on the additional work of newly missing team members.

Helping yourself to support others

Many individuals in leadership positions fail to recognise the significant risks of overworking, with some persuading themselves there’s no problem with it. 

It is important therefore that managers can acknowledge they risk poor mental and physical health, including burnout if they persist with overworking.

Not only this, but they are also modelling unhealthy behaviours to their teams, which could have wide reaching adverse ramifications. This is especially important given that the problem of overworking is a top-down issue which can only be tackled by a fundamental shift at management levels.

The more employees follow unhealthy examples, the more likely it is negative side-effects and health issues extend to become a company-wide problem.

First steps

Model healthy working. Take breaks. Take all your annual leave. Schedule designated time where your devices are turned off, and you don't look at them. Everyone needs opportunities for headspace throughout the day and your team should know this is a company-wide expectation.

Take some time to assess the current working habits of those around you. Check how employees feel about their workloads by running a few short, informal meetings, either online or in person, so teams don’t feel further stressed.

An effective workplace wellbeing strategy combines physical offerings like private health assessments, onsite or subsidised gym memberships with emotional wellbeing support.

Managing mental health

Leading by example is much more effective if you feel confident in doing so. If not, ask about the possibility of additional training to help you recognise the early warning signs of possible mental health issues in yourself and other team members.

Company offerings like professional support via cognitive behavioural therapy may be something to discuss as a permanent investment.

Digital or virtual therapy solutions can be effective too, with some research suggesting psychotherapy conducted online is as effective as face-to-face sessions. During 2020 Nuffield Health therapists delivered 3.7 million minutes of therapy remotely with excellent outcomes.

Physical wellbeing

Research suggests work professionals who look after their physical health are more effective leaders. Frequent exercise boosts brain health, improving memory function and the ability to process new information.

Managers should look for gaps in their routines to replace sedentary moments with exercise. Why not try shaking up work routines with activities by organising ‘walk and talk’ work meetings? These can make gatherings more useful as employees are more likely to feel energised rather than lethargic during a brisk walk. 

As restrictions begin to lift, take advantage of any company benefits like lunchtime fitness classes and discounted or free memberships to local gyms. Look for opportunities to participate in sponsored fitness events like a fundraising run. Encourage people to join you, to promote a culture of more physical activity across your teams.

For those working from home, offer a level of flexibility for when people choose to exercise. This is so employees feel secure exercising when it is convenient for them.

It’s important that those who began a fitness routine during lockdown do not stop because they feel guilty working out when others are in the office. 

Gosia Bowling is national lead for emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health