“One leader we work with recalls a time when her workload was so high that she started getting up at 4am and working for a few hours before her team started the day, just to try and get on top of it.”

In a recent Stuff article, our team shared research and professional anecdotes on how organisations’ leaders fare in terms of wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand. This research was grounded in data from over 4,000 employees across the country, collected using our Umbrella Wellbeing Assessment. This study has recently been submitted for publication and is available to view as a pre-print on the Open Science Framework.

While the findings in our study are numerous and varied, the anecdote that opened this article shines a light on how leaders might fare poorly when it comes to maintaining healthy habits. Combined with our research findings, these insights can help us to understand the puzzle pieces that make up leaders’ health behaviours, and what steps we can take to help. 

Of course, we also know that when we are supporting leaders’ wellbeing, we are also supporting the wellbeing of their teams. Leaders play a crucial role in role-modelling wellbeing (see our latest article on “Leading loudly” for more). In one 2020 study, for example, team members were more likely to take sick leave, rather than coming into work unwell, when they saw their leaders doing the same. The flow-on effects of leaders who prioritise their health are significant, and even more so in a COVID-19 world where we are reminded constantly of the true wealth of our health.

We know from Umbrella’s own research, as well as other studies, that leaders generally report greater demands from their mahi (i.e. pressure to work long hours, working intensively to meet deadlines, and neglecting other important tasks due to workload), and that these demands become progressively greater according to seniority in an organisation. So then, it makes sense that some leaders look for creative ways to navigate these demands including, unfortunately, sacrificing healthy habits such as sleep duration and quality (something we know is important for long-term mental and physical wellbeing).

In our study, we found two key differences between leaders and non-leaders on healthy habits:

  1. Senior leaders reported greater movement during the workday compared to both team leaders and team members. 

This one might be attributable to the nature of the work of senior leaders — for example, being more likely to be running between meetings, in and out of the office, and managing oversight across different parts of the business. Consequently, and beneficially, senior leaders report being less sedentary during their working hours. 

While this should be celebrated, it is crucial that leaders are also asked: does this constant movement come at the cost of feeling frantic, overworked, and stretched? Crucially, greater movement during the workday should also be paired with moments of psychological downtime (e.g. standing and stretching, going for a walk around the block while listening to music, or practising mindfulness while waiting for the kettle to boil). These habits don’t always come naturally, especially when work demands are high. But they can be cultivated – see here for ideas (or check out our “Shifting the frantic” overview).

  1. Senior leaders and team leaders report greater difficulty limiting their alcohol consumption compared to their team members.

Alcohol consumption, perhaps as a (maladaptive) coping mechanism due to high work demands, appears to be more common among leaders than non-leaders. What’s more, there is other research that has found a similar pattern. What this suggests is that there is something about their work that turns some people leaders to the bottle in their evenings. 

So, what can we do about it? On the one hand, leaders can be encouraged to adopt healthy habits, by learning the science of behaviour change and being supported to replace alcohol consumption with other adaptive stress management strategies (e.g. exercise). On the other hand, organisations should consider the aspects of their organisational climate that may lead to their leaders drinking more than their team members. Are there steps that can be taken to reduce work demands on leaders while building a climate that encourages employee wellbeing above all else? For more on how to approach conversations about workload see here. Or, get in touch with our team to discuss ways to improve organisational wellbeing. 

For more information on how our leaders differ from non-leaders in Aotearoa, you can read our research paper here. Don’t forget to connect with us on LinkedIn if you have any comments or reflections you would like to share.

Umbrella also offers professional coaching and development to help your leaders improve both their own and others’ wellbeing and performance. Our experienced clinical psychologists combine their wellbeing expertise and business nous to translate psychological knowledge into practical assistance that matches your people’s day-to-day reality. To find out more, contact us.