Who’s watching out for the leaders?

Robert Ordever, European MD of workplace culture expert OC Tanner, looks at how companies can help their bosses
Robert Ordever
CEO gives a presentation

As a leader would you admit that you’re struggling? Would you confess to being overworked, overwhelmed, and exhausted? A lot is expected of leaders day-to-day and yet their wellbeing is rarely questioned. Leaders are expected to be superhuman but the reality is that they could be in a state of real distress!

Today’s leaders are required to do everything – be visionaries, innovators, mentors, culture developers, recruiters, project managers, budgeters and wellbeing advocates. In the latest research by The O.C. Tanner Institute involving 36,000 employees, leaders, HR practitioners, and business executives from 20 countries, 61 percent of leaders report having more general responsibilities at work since before the pandemic, compared to only one third of employees. Some of the biggest increases in workload include adapting to new policies, and hiring and training new employees. In fact, leaders’ responsibilities have multiplied in recent years with organisations looking to their leaders to help navigate crisis, uncertainty, and change.

Of course, leaders have higher salaries, and some will say “you’re paid more so you have to deal with more” and “when you’re a leader, stress is part of the job”. These may well be true, but no amount of pay will decrease burnout. In fact, the higher salaries and pressure that come with leadership positions can accelerate burnout, with leaders putting their own wellbeing on the backburner while they try to juggle the sometimes conflicting priorities of loyalty to their organisation and a commitment to their people. As the shock absorbers of an organisation – dampening forces from both above and below – leaders are often severely compromising their own wellbeing.

At present, only 14 percent of companies deliberately attempt to ease their leaders’ burdens. Despite many organisations focused on improving the employee experience, leaders and managers are simply being overlooked.

So how can organisations improve the wellbeing of leaders when it may not be possible to decrease their workload?

Leaders are employees, too, and like any employee, they need to feel appreciated, valued and supported. Some leaders may be sceptical about displays of recognition, with a third feeling that their salary makes recognition unnecessary. However, research has proven again and again that recognition is a powerful force, with appreciation reducing leaders’ anxiety by 67 percent and stress by 52 percent. In fact, when an organisation reduces the giving of recognition, it increases the odds of burnout by 45 percent (O.C. Tanner’s 2023 Global Culture Report).

But when we talk about recognition, we’re not referring to an ad hoc pat on the back and generic “thank you” in passing. It must be purposefully given, frequent, tailored to the individual and meaningful. Leaders (as well as employees), must be recognised regularly and sincerely for their efforts, achievements and career milestones either in a formal or informal setting. This not only communicates that they and their work have been seen and are valued, but makes them feel more connected to the organisation, their colleagues and their teams. No amount of pay, bonuses or incentives can convey appreciation like true recognition does.

Organisations should also actively support their leaders, perhaps providing additional training together with the creation of a strong network of leaders and managers across the organisation that can share best practice, learnings, coping strategies and advice. This networking approach also strengthens belonging and inclusion so leaders understand they aren’t alone in their struggles. When leaders feel a strong sense of inclusion, anxiety levels reduce by a phenomenal 67 percent.

What else can be done?

Leaders don’t like surprises, especially when they result in more work for them! Organisations must recognise that when they roll-out new initiatives without involving leaders in both the planning and communication stages, this can create frustrations and feelings of being out-of-control. Leaders must not only be kept informed but must also be involved at the start of any change management process so that any additional workload can be anticipated - and stress, anxiety, and burnout minimised.

The fact is that some leaders are now at breaking point. They are finding themselves in a downward spiral of stress largely due to their ever-expanding responsibilities coupled with feeling torn between supporting the organisation’s goals on the one hand, and their employees’ needs on the other. And although there’s no ‘quick fix’ when it comes to improving mental health, by ensuring all leaders feel recognised, valued, involved and a strong sense of belonging, this goes a long way to reducing their stress levels.

It’s time to nurture happier and more productive people in every position across an organisation. The healthiest cultures understand that every leader is also an employee, and their wellbeing needs simply can’t be ignored.

Written by
Robert Ordever
European MD of OC Tanner
December 8, 2022