We are in the middle of a wellness revolution, there is no doubt about it. And I love it! Playing a key role in advocating for health and wellbeing in the corporate domain is Arianna Huffington, author, columnist and businesswoman who is enormously passionate about the importance of looking after oneself physically and mentally for optimal performance, especially at the executive and leadership levels. Her bestselling books Thrive and The Sleep Revolution, published in 2014 and 2016 respectively, have spawned a legion of fans trying to integrate the demands and pressures of corporate life with self-care and being the best version of themselves for family and friends.

More recently, there has been an explosion in the number of organisations adopting and implementing health and wellness programs for their staff. A Google search of ‘leadership and wellness’ can yield 180 million hits! Employee health and wellbeing is one of the top HR trends for 2018 and beyond and has been reported as such by various industry research and professional publications (Agarwal et al., 2018; Hilton, 2018; Schawbel, 2017). Indeed, Human Resources (HR) spend on wellbeing has skyrocketed and health and wellness now takes firm priority in the budget for many HR Directors. Dozens of providers exist just in Australia, a significant increase compared to many years ago when employee health and wellbeing was much less prominent and today, the employee experience is starting to be treated with the same importance as an organisation’s financial health.


What brought us here?

Burnout, stress and depression have become worldwide epidemics. Researchers argue that this is often due to a combination of factors, including overwork, lack of autonomy, lack of security and lack of meaningful work (Leiter, 2018). Others argue that it is our modern day definition of success that is causing us to work ourselves literally to death. The notion that ‘nothing succeeds like excess’ is a standard Huffington talks to at length in her Thrive publication, as she works to challenge the arguably irrational belief we often hold that we need to work longer, harder and more intensely to be successful, otherwise we have somehow failed at life.

The statistics are startling and suggest some hard-hitting truths such as:

  • In Australia, body stressing and mental stress claims accounted for 71% of premium payers’ claims costs in the Comcare scheme in 2009/10 (Comcare, 2011);
  • One in five Australians (21%) have taken time off work in the past 12 months because they felt stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy (TNS Social Research and BeyondBlue, 2014);
  • According to an ABS study, 45% of Australians between the ages of 16-85 will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. It is estimated that untreated mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces approximately $10.9 billion per year (TNS Social Research and BeyondBlue, 2014);
  • Millennials, our future workforce, report depression in higher numbers compared to any previous generation, with one in five reporting they deal with depression (Morneau Shepell, 2017);   
  • In a 26-year period in the United States (1983 – 2009), stress levels across all demographic categories increased between 10% to 30%;
  • In the United Kingdom, stress has emerged in recent years as the top cause of illness across the nation.

Whilst the causes of stress are no doubt numerous, unique to an individual’s circumstances and complex, the evidence certainly suggests that workload and one’s experiences in the workplace contribute to feelings of stress (Leiter, 2018). Buoyed by the courage of prominent leaders who admit working themselves to the point of exhaustion is not a badge of honour and leaders who have shared their struggles with mental ill-health because of overwork, it is becoming widely accepted that feeling well is indeed good for business and setting the tone at the top that health and wellness are paramount is a leader’s most important role.

Amazon co-founder, Jeff Bezos, is very vocal about his need for 8 hours sleep a night, quoting “8 hours of sleep makes a big difference for me… when you are talking about decisions and interactions, quality is usually more important than quantity.”

Andrew Mackenzie, CEO of BHP Billiton, talks about his first-hand experience of being rested and the subsequent link to productivity – “A rested Andrew can do more in four hours than a tired Andrew can do in eight.”


The role of the leader

It is well known that leaders play critical roles in guiding the performance of an organisation and its people. For many people, the way they are treated by their line manager and the behaviour of all the leaders in the organisation makes an enormous difference to how they feel about themselves and their work. Many of us seek the support of leaders who often adopt the role of a stronger and wiser caregiver-like figure and provide followers with a sense of safety and security, especially in times of workplace stress or threat such as during periods of organisational restructure or change (Popper & Mayseless, 2003). The leader’s role in creating a safe, positive and enriching environment in which team members can thrive is a critical one and a wealth of studies link leadership with a range of outcomes, supporting the enormous impact the leader has on people and performance of others.

However, whilst the role of the leader in helping build ‘well’ teams and environments is espoused in research and promoted as a key leadership accountability, in practice, a large majority of leaders are yet to catch up. For example:

  • In a recent study commissioned by TNS and Beyond Blue (2014), only five in ten (56%) employees believed their most senior leader valued mental health; furthermore, they found that 81% of organisational leaders indicate their workplace has one or more policies, procedures or practices to support mental health, but many employees (35%) don’t know these resources exist or don’t have access to them;
  • Employee engagement data suggests that managers lack confidence when it comes to dealing with stress and wellbeing issues experienced by their team members and don’t know how to navigate these sensitive situations.


What can leaders do?

Interventions to support health and wellbeing at an individual, team and organisational level are multi-faceted and extensive and are certainly starting to yield promising results that warrant their inclusion in organisational spend. Without reciting the various initiatives that exist, we suggest that the leader can play a role across three levels of impact in promoting health and wellbeing for themselves and others, as follows:

 1 – Looking Within and to Others: To what extent do you value wellness? Valuing health and wellbeing at an individual level is key to then drive behaviours such as sleeping enough hours, eating well, exercising etc. Often we don’t value our health as much as what we should or could until we are faced with a health scare that makes us re-evaluate our internal belief system and forces us to see the world in a different way. The key message here is even if you have not gone through a health scare yourself and instead place value on other things in your life, your team members may be having a very different experience. The importance of values-based leadership is cited regularly and the impact of a leader’s personal values on the experiences and wellbeing of others cannot be underestimated. True leadership is ensuring your team is healthy and happy. Value wellness in yourself to show your team that you do care and can empathise with their individual experiences. Leaders who lack confidence or the right tools in their toolkit to deal with employees who are struggling (beyond referrals to HR and policy/process solutions) should be equipped with the skills and techniques to navigate these sensitive circumstances and support themselves and their team members in being the best version of themselves they can be. Building capability in things like emotional intelligence and awareness; active listening and mindfulness; having regular check-ins with team members as distinct from structured, formal, infrequent performance reviews can all assist leaders in being aware of the struggles of others and feel confident to take action accordingly.  

2 –  Looking Across: How can you role model leadership health and wellbeing practices for others? This is driven by the value a leader places on wellbeing at an individual level, and a passionate leader who fundamentally believes in the importance of wellbeing for themselves and others can affect enormous change! Research suggests that employee engagement increases when people feel their health is being respected and encouraged (World Economic Forum, cited in Wilson, 2016). Can you influence how leadership capabilities are defined so that they emphasise behaviours that prevent and reduce stress at work? Donaldson-Feilder and Lewis (2016) propose 12 management capabilities such as being considerate, problem-solving, empathetic engagement and taking responsibility for resolving issues as some of the key things managers need to be demonstrating regularly to reduce stressful experiences for others.

 3 – Looking Beyond and Leaving a Legacy: Beyond supporting employees day-to-day with their strengths and development opportunities related to their health and wellbeing, the role of the leader can be to provide meaning for others so that each employee is living their best life in your organisation. Research suggests that engagement is at its highest and the risk of burnout is reduced the most when employees are happy and find meaning, fulfillment and purpose in their roles. Thus, a leader may aspire to ultimately leave a legacy in which every employee found meaning in their work, and consequently, felt the happiest and healthiest they could. Jack Welch talks about the role of the leader as the Chief Meaning Officer, who must focus not just on where the organisation is going and how it will get there, but what it means for people to come on that journey. And, more than ever before, what it means for people is likely achieving great things but maintaining their physical and mental health in the process. Schlon Beechler, Senior Affiliate Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at INSEAD talks about the importance of getting people to reconnect with what they find happiness in. Maybe this is internal or even external to the organisation, maybe it requires relocating someone to a new role or department so that they can perform optimally. Every leader can play a role in leaving a legacy where others find meaning – the leader who regularly talks about the strategy of the organisation and how each person’s role in the team contributes to what we are all ultimately achieving to provide absolute clarity; the leader-as-coach who creates a space for their employees to share personal experiences that aids in their wellness journey; the leader who builds a psychologically safe environment for others and demonstrates vulnerability by sharing their own personal challenges and letting others know that it is normal to struggle and that is part of the learning journey we are all on; the leader who cares about the physical space in which work is performed and advocates for change so that people can be comfortable; the list is endless.


Whilst it may sound like the leader has to do a lot, we encourage leaders to start from the top with Looking Within and reflect on what is important to you and how this may indeed be different for your team members. Gaining an appreciation and awareness of this is a great place to start your leadership journey in supporting the health and wellness revolution.

As a way of demonstrating our own commitment to social responsibility, mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, CLA have been proud to support the 2018 Medibank Melbourne Marathon Festival and our chosen charity, The Black Dog Institute. Our team came together and participated in the event on Sunday 14 October, raising over $2,500 (and still going!) to support the fabulous work of this organisation. As of Monday 15th October, The Black Dog Institute had a total of $21,539 raised in donations to them through this event.


Agarwal, D., Bersin, J., Lahiri, G., Schwartz, J., & Volini, E. (2018). Well-being: A strategy and a responsibility. 2018 Deloitte Human Capital Trends. Accessed via https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/focus/human-capital-trends/2018/employee-well-being-programs.html.  


Beechler, S. (13 December, 2013). The role of leaders in helping others find meaning at work. INSEAD. Accessed via https://knowledge.insead.edu/blog/insead-blog/the-role-of-leaders-in-helping-others-find-meaning-at-work-3055


Donaldson-Feilder, E. & Lewis, R. (19 June 2016). Managing mental health at work: The role of leaders and line managers. Stress, Occupational Health, Wellbeing. Access via https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/managing-mental-health-work-role-leaders-line-managers/


Hilton, J. (12 January, 2018). Key HR trends to look out for in 2018. HRD Australia. Accessed via https://www.hcamag.com/hr-news/key-hr-trends-to-look-out-for-in-2018-245457.aspx


Leiter, M. (October 2018). Burnout busters. BOSS Financial Review.


Morneau Shepell (2017). Depression and work: The impact of depression on different generations of employees. Accessed via https://us.morneaushepell.com/sites/default/files/assets/downloads/Whitepaper_MorneauShepell_Depression_and_work_E-US_0417.pdf.


Popper, M., & Mayseless, O. (2003). Back to basics: Applying a parental perspective to

transformational leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 14, 41-65.


Thrive, Arianna Huffington (2014). Penguin Random House, UK.


The Sleep Revolution, Arianna Huffington (2016). Penguin Random House, UK.


Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission 2010, Compendium of OHS and Workers’ Compensation Statistics, Comcare, 21 July 2011, access via http://www.srcc.gov.au/publications


Schawbel, D. (1 November, 2017). 10 workplace trends you’ll see in 2018. Forbes. Access via https://www.forbes.com/sites/danschawbel/2017/11/01/10-workplace-trends-youll-see-in-2018/#6667c2394bf2


TNS Social Research and Beyond Blue (2014). State of workplace mental health in Australia. Accessed via https://www.headsup.org.au/docs/default-source/resources/bl1270-report—tns-the-state-of-mental-health-in-australian-workplaces-hr.pdf?sfvrsn=8


Jack Welch Management Institute (2015). What is the role of a leader? Accessed via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojkOs8Gatsg


Wilson, G. (1 August, 2016). Why we need a leadership revolution to drive wellness and vitality In today’s business world. Huffington Post. Accessed via https://www.huffingtonpost.com/graham-wilson/why-we-need-a-leadership-_b_8923584.html

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