Like it or not, the pandemic has marked the end of an era of stability in business. The shocks of this century’s first two decades; from 9/11 and the financial crisis, to Covid and war in Europe, were thought of as volatile events against a background of stable progress and order. This is now changing: sustained instability and unpredictability are the new normal.
Our times are no longer simply characterised by change, but sudden and dramatic events with major consequences, some temporary, some permanent, and all capable of inducing panic, fear, dysfunction and stress.
The negative impact of rising stress-levels and declining workplace wellbeing are significant for leaders in three ways. First, they jeopardise the leader’s own personal effectiveness at precisely the moment of greatest opportunity, challenge or change. Second, they reduce team morale and sap the ability to achieve team goals. Finally, responses to stress have the potential to reduce efficiency and focus, and damage perceptions of the whole organisation.
The ability to manage stress (and its vexatious twin that also needs managing, time) is essential to maintaining adaptability
For all these reasons leaders need to manage their own wellbeing, create conditions that reduce the level and incidence of stress in their organisation, and detect the symptoms of stress in others.
If that is the ‘stick’, however, it is important to appreciate the ‘carrot’, the benefits of enhancing workplace wellbeing. Crucially, the ability to manage stress (and its vexatious twin that also needs managing, time) is essential to maintaining adaptability. Other advantages of managing workplace wellbeing include: enhanced personal energy and focus; greater confidence; improved collaboration; attracting and retaining talent, and an ability to embrace risk and audacious thinking, all of which drive innovation and improvement.
There is another reason why managing workplace wellbeing matters greatly and it relates to the brand. A brand essentially comprises everything that happens within the organisation and runs, like a thread, connecting everyone inside with the outside world. The ‘outside’ not only comprises current and potential customers, vital though they are, but also opinion formers alongside current and potential employees, the kind of people you need to navigate, sustain and shape your business in the future. Organisations need to show kindness and decency in our unfamiliar times, and they need to be accepted in the places where they operate. So, if your organisation is suffering from the detrimental effects of ignoring workplace wellbeing, perhaps with fearful, stressed individuals behaving in ways that range from microaggressions to the worst excesses of dysfunction, then the effects will be apparent to everyone. You may not know it yet, but you could be on a highway to short-term damage as well as longer-term harm. Expect current and potential customers and employees to be put off, disturbed, or to actively work against you. And expect the communities that you serve to repudiate your way of working.
On the plus side, not only are the benefits of focusing on workplace wellbeing compelling, they are also simple to achieve. Focusing on several practical issues, actions and questions will go a long way.
First, understand the drivers of wellbeing in your organisation: how things are currently perceived, what works well, what does not, and what people want. It is important to be able to recognise the symptoms and causes of stress and dysfunction, to manage your own personal situation and emotions, and to create conditions that enhance wellbeing for others. This task may, however, be surprisingly difficult, largely because stress builds up gradually over time and is all consuming, being difficult to separate from normal behaviour.
Follow the six rules for being a great boss.
Brilliant bosses work hard at several things, making work meaningful and enjoyable for their colleagues. They’re most successful when they adhere to a few best practices (and it may help to consider where you could improve).
• Manage individuals, not just teams. When you’re under pressure it is easy to forget that employees have varying interests, abilities and goals. Take time to check in on people, understand what makes each person tick so that you can customise your interactions.
• Purpose matters: go big on meaning. Inspire people with a vision, set challenging goals, and articulate a clear purpose. Don’t rely on incentives or socialising.
• Provide constructive feedback. Use regular one-on-one conversations and make feedback clear and constructive, it’s a great way to show someone that they are valued.
• Listen – don’t just talk. Pose challenges and ask questions to enlist the entire team in generating solutions.
• Be consistent. Be open to new ideas; if change becomes necessary, acknowledge it quickly.
• Be self-aware. Understand your own strengths and areas for improvement, your impact and the shadow you cast as a leader.
Communicating effectively is a clear priority for workplace wellbeing as well as constituting a vital, perennial challenge. Communication means listening, questioning and asking at least as much as telling and informing. It also needs to be relevant and tailored for each individual; every individual needs to feel understood, heard and able to engage.
Empathy, openness and kindness (yes, you heard that right) are also essential. That is why, for example, Elon Musk’s exhortation for Twitter employees to embrace a hard-core culture of long hours worked at high intensity, where “only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade” is so flawed. It risks attracting people who care only about the intensity of their work or what they perceive as the ill-defined concept of “exceptional performance”. It risks turning the inside workings of the business into a ‘me-first’ hellscape rather than a supportive, collaborative and dynamic workplace.
The final major challenge for workplace wellbeing is be courageous. While there are many other supportive actions, the need for courage stands apart. It means doing the right things, always; challenging the wrong behaviours; making the bold changes that may be needed and delivering a workplace that speaks positively to employees, customers and the communities that you serve. That will sustain your business through opportunity, challenge and change, and help navigate unfamiliar times. What could be more important than that?
Jeremy Kourdi is an executive coach and director of leadership consultancy Kourdi Associates