How executive wellbeing (and attitude to wellbeing) transforms companies

Research shows organisational leaders can improve wellbeing in two key ways: by prioritising their own mental health and by learning how to support the wellbeing of others.

When we refer to employee wellbeing we usually view the workforce as a whole. Employee wellbeing is linked to improved performance and reduced turnover, highlighting the significant impact of individual wellbeing on overall organisational success.

While ultimately wellbeing is a cultural issue and therefore all employees contribute to it, it stands to reason that the wellbeing of key personnel could have outsized effects. And there is no one more influential in an organisation than its leaders. For most organisations, if they could choose only a single person to be mentally and physically able to do a job, it would be the most senior person possible.

A series of studies can help us grasp the issue and what it means for companies.

CEO burnout, organisational cave-ins

If you’re helping set the overall strategic direction and making timely decisions when market circumstances change, anything that might cause you to make worse choices could change your organisation’s fortunes.

In a paper published in the International Journal of Strategic Management, researchers found that executive burnout had this exact effect. Looking at 156 CEOs from Swedish companies they discovered “the relationship between CEO burnout and performance is negative and significant”.  

The same study found that “resource availability” acted as an exacerbating factor. Basically, if a company had less capital, less staff on hand, and so on, the burnout of the CEO had a greater impact. So the exact thing that might cause emotional exhaustion – overseeing a company stretched to its limits – is also when a company can least afford executive burnout.

If you’re worried about burnout or other mental health issues in your organisation, Healthy Business offers 1:1 employee health coaching encompassing mental health (in addition to the following 3 pillars of health: lifestyle, musculoskeletal, sleep and fatigue). They also provide a range of psychosocial hazard solutions such as organisation psychology, employee assistance program, mental health presentations and a psychosocial hazard education series delivered by a Clinical Psychologist.

Entrepreneurs and mental health conditions

In a paper for Small Business Economics, researchers looked at the prevalence of entrepreneurs self-reporting psychiatric conditions. The study found that 49% of entrepreneurs reported at least one mental health condition, with 32% reporting multiple conditions. The most prevalent were depression (30%), ADHD (29%), substance use (12%), and bipolar disorder (11%). All of these rates exceeded the rates of non-entrepreneurs in the study.

Such strong findings suggest that the mental health of leaders might be at more risk than other people, and so worth monitoring. However, this study focused on “entrepreneurs”, which includes those who founded or co-founded businesses and not-for profits, and doesn’t include CEOs or company heads who lead companies they didn’t found.

In terms of the effect managers have on the mental health of their subordinates, research from the Workforce Institute talked to 2,200 employees in 10 countries (including Australia) and found that they have as large an impact as a spouse. Seven out of ten of those employees also said they would like their manager and company to do more to support their wellbeing.

The impact of executive coaching

Knowing that wellbeing is important for leaders is one thing, intervening is another. One of the most common approaches is to provide senior workers with executive coaching – often in the form of professional external coaches. Decades of research show this type of coaching can be effective.  

A systematic review of 110 peer-reviewed articles on executive coaching outcomes published in The Leadership Quarterly focused solely on coaching provided by external coaches to organisational members, excluding other forms of coaching, such as life coaching or mentoring.

It found that coaching has several positive outcomes. These included:  

  • improved workplace wellbeing
  • reduced stress/anxiety  
  • improved resilience
  • better management and development of others
  • increased work and life satisfaction  

However, there were a few potential pitfalls.

Firstly, when a person being coached sets overly ambitious goals, does not set aside enough time to complete them, or lacks motivation before going into coaching, their work performance can actually be negatively impacted.

So rather than following the adage of “aiming for the moon because if you miss you could hit a star”, it is safer for coachees to aim for something closer to earth. A skilled coach will know this and guide them appropriately.

Next, openness to coaching was identified as important, if those being coached don’t see the value in it or lack the motivation to achieve the goals set, the coaching will be ineffective.

It’s also crucial for organisations and coaching providers to align on what success looks like, establishing what metrics will be used and communicating that to everyone. This is because businesses tend to judge coaching by how much it improves the bottom line, while the individuals being coached seek personal development benefits.  

Healthy Business believes in this kind of collaboration – in working with businesses to identify their needs and matching those needs with the appropriate offering. See our case studies for just a few examples.

A field study published in Academy of Management Learning and Education found that the biggest predictor of a successful coaching outcome was the strength of the relationship between coach and coachee.

In fact, they recommend letting the coachee select their coach based on a “trial session”, because their evaluation of the working alliance’s strength was predictive of better outcomes in the long run. This also suggests that coaches who are adaptive and able to quickly build a rapport with their coachees will achieve more success with a greater variety of people than a coach with a strict approach.

Teaching leaders to lead

What if your leadership intervention was more tailored to the task of leadership itself? In other words, what if you give leaders the tools to enhance the wellbeing of their teams?

A 2020 paper published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health examined the effectiveness of an intensive 8-month program at a health systems multinational organisation. It included off-site sessions, training days and peer consultations, and focused on engaging leadership (a concept grounded in human motivation theory) as well as psychological wellbeing.  

The program had major buy-in from the company, was co-created by the mid-level team leaders undergoing it, and was designed to help those leaders value and support the autonomy of their team members.

Very positive results were achieved.

  • KPI Performance: The percentage of a key business metric (orders booked on time) increased from 87% to 92% after the program, a significant jump that translated into tangible financial gains for the department.
  • Absenteeism: Sick-leave absenteeism dropped to 2% in the intervention group, significantly lower than the organisation's overall target of 3%. The net number of lost workdays per month fell by almost 60%.

What it all means

If there’s anything to the idea of self-care being a part of caring well for others – that concept of putting on your own oxygen mask first – then it’s perfectly logical to believe that executives who care for their own mental health will extend that consideration to their entire company.

As Healthy Business has found in other articles, there’s a straight line between executive buy-in when it comes to wellbeing and improved business performance. A culture that values wellbeing from the top to the bottom sets itself up for success. The above research simply makes that more clear.  

If you’re interested in forms of coaching that are focused on wellbeing and are scalable to your entire organisation, Healthy Business offers a comprehensive and flexible workplace health and wellbeing program. It is based on a model of preventing both mental and physical health issues in a proactive manner that can boost employee engagement. The aim is help your bottom line through increased productivity and reduced absenteeism and compensation claims.

If you want to know more about unlocking the benefits of wellbeing for your organisation, reach out to us today.

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