Leaders are not superheroes – they’re human. This means that they too are affected by the significant uncertainty and stress brought about by COVID-19 and the physiological effects that can significantly impede wellbeing and performance. It is critical now more than ever that leaders are given the opportunity and the tools to fit their own oxygen mask in order to lead teams in which every single individual is likely to be struggling with varying levels of stress due to the significant change and uncertainty brought about by COVID-19.
Leadership too has changed.
Whilst the skills to identify and seek help for individuals who are experiencing mental illness remains an essential leadership skill, leaders also need information and tools to counteract the downturns in presence, performance and productivity among the wider workforce that are being brought on by the natural human responses to the significant change, uncertainty, and stress of this unprecedented time. Wellbeing drives performance and wellbeing is being challenged on a global scale.
Leadership training programs need to break free of regressive management strategies and financial theories and instead equip leaders to understand what truly drives people. Leadership training programs need to provide practices that can help to optimise human physiology – to help leaders perform at their best as well as bring out the best in the individuals in their teams. This is important in the good times…and it’s essential in the tough times.
Leaders need to be able to fit their own oxygen mask first and then be given the tools to help fit out the rest of the team in a way that ensures it doesn’t create unnecessary complexity or increased burden…because let’s face it, the rest of their job requirements haven’t gone anywhere, they’ve likely just become more complicated!
As I wade through the realms of articles, opinions, posts, and papers talking about how the world has changed forever, citing the uncertainty and stress globally brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and the need to address the impact on people’s mental health, I can’t help but think about the fact that we were already operating in VUCA world. Before the tumultuous events of 2020 began to unfold, we were already living and working in an era characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Countless individuals were already living and working in unhealthy states of chronic stress. COVID-19 has just magnified it and created the critical mass that I hope will lead to changes in how organisations approach performance and wellbeing in the workplace.
The fact that the isolation, uncertainty, and anxiety of COVID-19 have touched, is touching and will continue to touch so many lives, means we cannot pretend anymore that wellbeing is just a nice to have in the budget – if we can stretch it that far. We need to empower people to do more than just survive, we need to help them to thrive in the rapid-paced and everchanging 21st century we’re living. COVID-19 hasn’t created the need for wellbeing to become more than a discretionary budget spend – it just crystallised it.
Offering free yoga sessions, or a meditation app are wonderful additions to workplace wellbeing, but they alone are not sufficient nor consistent enough to create genuine and meaningful change. Leaders have the power to influence all the individuals in their teams, for better or worse, and even the most erudite strategy can fail if the person implementing it lacks awareness and wellness. So rather than cutting wellbeing budgets or spending them in ad hoc ways that are analogous to putting a band aid over an amputated limb, it’s time to converge wellbeing and leadership budgets to not only provide meaningful and necessary support to leaders, but to also empower genuine and sustainable cultural change on a daily basis.
Neuroscience and positive psychology research over recent decades have identified powerful practices that positively influence human wellbeing, and empirical research has shown a positive correlation between improved psychological wellbeing and performance, productivity, and creativity. If we want to genuinely improve engagement and increase productivity, we need to look beyond superficial incentives like free food or yoga vouchers and help leaders to understand what truly drives people – and then give them the tools to make the practices that boost and protect psychological wellbeing an integral part of every team and organisation’s culture.
You don’t have to be a superhero to be a highly effective leader – you just have to be human.