How Leadership Development Can Help Combat Work-Related Stress

Here at The Leadership Coaches, we are sharing our insights, research, and experience to outline how leadership development can play a vital role in combatting work-related stress and promote a culture of mental wellness where everyone feels listened too, appreciated, valued and able to thrive in challenging and uncertain times.

In this article we look at the scale of the challenge organisations face and recommend how taking a more proactive approach to this subject is the most effective and sustained course of action to combatting work-related stress.

The scale of the challenge

The scale of mental wellness issues in organisations has been building steadily over recent decades and have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the problem of work-related stress is prevalent and growing in today’s virtual, global and “always on” workplace, where the boundaries between work and home life have become blurred. A quick search of the internet provides a plethora of data on how stress, and the resulting poor mental health and illness, is having a profound impact on organisations, their people and wider society. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates over 11 million days are lost at work each year because of work-related stress *1.

Making wellness a strategic necessity in the organisation

Despite this rise in work-related stress, many companies are still not paying enough attention to supporting the wellness of their people or are simply relying on reactive measures, which can be helpful in managing some of the effects of work-related stress, but don’t go deep enough to fully address the underlying causes and the support individuals need to develop strategies for long term wellness. It can be tempting for organisations to jump straight into providing interventions such as free fruit, yoga classes or mindfulness apps. Although these all have short to medium term benefits, they are unlikely to be effective in the long term, unless they are underpinned by a range of interventions that focus on developing a culture of wellness with clear and well communicated organisational vision and values, clarity of expectations, psychological safety, support systems and of course, leadership behaviours.

Fortunately, many organisations are now recognising that creating a culture of wellness is a strategic necessity and are working to support their managers with leadership development to help them focus on driving the sustained behavioural change required to proactively combat the impact of work-related stress.

Developing leadership behaviours

We believe that leaders are key in developing, promoting, and maintaining the behaviours that are the foundation for organisational wellbeing.

Here are three things that you can do right now to demonstrate the behaviours that will underpin a culture of wellness:

1. Take a moment (for yourself!)


A McKinsey article *2 on leading in challenging times, recommends that all leaders take time to pause and slow down. Pausing during changing and stressful situations is a counterintuitive action that can lead us to greater understanding and effectiveness. It’s similar to the aircraft safety message of “put your oxygen mask on first before you help others.” When we take a moment to stop, take a breath, it carves out a safe space for greater self-awareness and for us to re-focus ourselves before we respond to situations and make decisions. The McKinsey article has some great micro practice techniques for leaders to help them find that moment of stillness and to make it a habit of success.

2. Have the conversation – it can change a life


We can help our people by proactively initiating a conversation about their wellness and listening to their response with a compassionate, open, and non-judging mind. By starting a conversation, asking “how are you doing?” and, where appropriate, commenting on any changes you’ve noticed, you could help that individual open up, share how they are feeling and start the process of supporting them back to wellness.

We recommend leaders take a look at the incredible resources available at RU OK. *3 (a suicide prevention charity in Australia, reminding people that having meaningful conversations with loved ones, friends and colleagues could change lives) to help them develop the skills and behaviours to meaningfully connect with their people.


3. Lead by example


Most people will look to their leaders for guidance on how to behave at work, so what message are you sending about the importance of creating a culture of wellness?

If you are sending emails before dawn, staying late in the office every night, not taking regular breaks, and booking back-to-back Teams meetings, it’s likely that that your team members will follow your lead and do the same as behaviour breeds behaviour. If the culture you are creating is one of long hours and little work/life balance, then it’s going to have a negative impact on your team member’s (and your own) stress levels.

In recent years we’ve seen the emergence of mental wellness leadership role models, like António Horta-Osória, the CEO at Lloyds Banking Group who has spoken openly about how work-place stress came at the expense of his mental health. This experience reshaped his management priorities and made wellbeing a strategic necessity at Lloyds.

Other examples of leader’s role modelling wellness as a priority on the corporate agenda are:

Arianna Huffington, CEO of Thrive Global is a big supporter of getting a full night’s rest to combat stress. The offices of Thrive Global all have nap rooms for employees to use when they need. While not every office has the space for a nap room, the organisation lets employees know they’re supported in taking time off while working from home, or even taking a walk during the day to unplug and re-energise.

Alexis Jones, CEO of I AM THAT GIRL, (an empowerment non-profit helping girls transform self-doubt to self-love), says that leading wellbeing at work starts with giving people the permission to make wellbeing a priority. She says in an interview with Wisdom Works, “In the past…I was sitting there telling people the most important thing is to take care of themselves, yet I was obviously sick and not at my best. I was sending the message that Alexis doesn’t leave work for anything, even when she’s sick. So, for me leading wellbeing is having the guts to really practice what I preach, to back my words up with actions. I think you build the strongest team when you can be vulnerable and take care of yourself personally."

Contact Us Today

Here at the Leadership Coaches, we are operating in new and exciting ways and are working on both leadership team coaching and 1:1 team coaching to proactively support organisations and their leaders with practical and high impact development interventions to help combat work-place stress, navigate through and beyond the pandemic and create winning environments where people can flourish and thrive.

To discuss your leadership development priorities, please contact us.

Article researched and written by Heather Rayfield; executive leadership coach and facilitator, corporate mental health and wellbeing consultant, clinical reflexologist (Dip Reflexology, Dip A&P IEB).

Sources and references used in this article:

*1Work-related stress and how to tackle it - www.hse.gov.uk/stress

*2www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/leading-with-inner-agility

*3https://www.ruok.org.au