The psychological wellbeing of workers is a fundamental component of workplace health and safety plans. The Health and Safety at Work Act (2015) says businesses must take reasonably practical steps to protect health and prevent harm at work, including psychological harm. This has coincided with an increase in training programmes designed to raise worker awareness of maintaining psychological wellbeing.
Most of these training programmes are generic, targeted at all workers within an organisation. They are useful because they bring groups of workers together to learn to monitor their own psychological wellbeing and that of their colleagues.
Managers often sit in on these training sessions. While the content will be useful to them it is unlikely to fully address the specific pressures and stresses of their roles. The role of manager is one in which success is indirectly achieved through the activities of the team the manager leads. Leaders frequently find themselves managing the expectations of the people they report to at the same time as managing the expectations of the staff reporting to them.
In their 2017 survey of managers and leaders Mercers found the just 67 per cent of those surveyed thought that the level of stress they experienced at work was manageable.
The other third was either unsure that the level of stress they experienced at work was manageable or reported that they were overwhelmed. Approximately a third of respondents also reported that they struggled to maintain work-life balance. Just half the leaders and managers believed they had enough time to do a quality job and only 48 per cent felt they could detach from their work (Hyland, 2017). Ranked on the OECD Work-Life Balance Index New Zealand came in 28th out of 34 countries. Data from the 2013 New Zealand census indicates that over 40 per cent of people who worked fulltime in a management position reported working over 50 hours per week.
Mental health issues can lead to both absenteeism and presenteeism. Presenteeism is where people are physically present in the workplace but are not fit to carry out their work effectively due to their mental and emotional state.
Sarah Davies, from the London school of Economics, notes that a 2016 study of eight countries found that the cost to a business of presenteeism tends to be five to 10 times higher than for absenteeism. The study also found that people in management positions were the most resistant to taking time off work, meaning that they were responsible for more of the losses arising from presenteeism.
Poor psychological wellbeing of leaders impacts negatively on a business in many ways. Negative emotions due to stress can significantly limit our ability to think creatively and develop innovative solutions.
Research indicates that leader stress and wellbeing is an important factor on the level of stress and wellbeing of the employees (Skakon et al, 2010). Leadership can be a lonely place. While most staff can form support networks with their peers many managers have no peers within the workplace from whom they can seek support.
The evidence is clear that there is a strong need for leaders to learn and regularly practise self-care strategies as a part of their working day.
Ironically self-care can be seen as a "luxury" we do not have time or energy for at times of stress, yet when we practise self-care we operate more efficiently and handle the pressures of the job more effectively.
The challenge for leaders is to take a proactive approach to wellbeing by viewing self-care as a part of their job and as part of the job for staff. To change the culture of "just dealing with stress" and "getting on with the job regardless" leaders must be deliberate about identifying and managing their own stress and being able to identify and help manage stress in employees. By practising self-care strategies leaders model these behaviours for staff. Self-care goals can be woven into performance discussions with staff and captured in performance agreements.
For leaders the question is no longer "Should I give priority to my own well-being?" As well as the benefits for their personal wellbeing and performance in their role, leaders who practise self-care strategies can have positive impact on the wellbeing of staff and the health and performance of the business. The question leaders should be asking is "How do I start?"
* Grant Gunning is a registered psychologist who has over 20 years experience working in senior management positions in government organisations. He works in private practice in Hawke's Bay.