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In terms of priorities, health often comes last for leaders. Time and time again, studies have found the top sources of stress for executives are excessive workload and/or long hours, lack of work/life balance and inadequate staffing.
Yet the effect of poor health for leaders can be profound.
A survey of executives who had reached their position before age 40, and who had survived significant organisational challenges found that depression was common, and this was characterised by insomnia, exhaustion, loss of self esteem, self-doubt, self-blame, a fear of failing, embarrassment, and guilt. Many also experienced weight gain, low energy levels, increased blood pressure, chest pains and back problems.
Even without significant organisational challenges, many of us are not as healthy as we think. In Australia, workplace health checks of over 500,000 Victorian workers revealed 93% ate less than the recommended daily intake of fruit and vegetables, nearly 70% weren’t doing enough exercise, nearly 40% were drinking at risky levels and nearly 20% reported smoking.
In addition, 5,223 workers (1%) were advised to see their GP within 24 hours due to very high blood pressure or very high blood glucose levels. Over half of all of the workers were advised to see their GP within a month to follow up a health concern identified during the checks.
Of course, it’s a natural assumption to make that your health is your personal business, and in many ways it is. There are very few leadership roles that demand you share latest blood pressure or Body Mass Index reading.
However, it would be a mistake to believe that a leader’s health does not impact on the business. For a start, sudden illness of a senior leader can create instability and can scare consumers, shareholders and other stakeholders.
Leaders also hold a considerable amount of power to role-model and motivate others in terms of their health, which is critical for productivity, and the bottom line.
Statistics show that 6.7 million work days were lost to absence in New Zealand in 2014, which cost the New Zealand economy $1.4 billion dollars. Other research suggests that when presenteeism is taken into account, illness at work could cost the economy more like $4.1 billion to $11.6 billion.
Health is an issue too big for any leader, or any organisation to ignore.
While it could feel overwhelming, the research shows that one of the most effective things a leader can do is simplify their approach to wearing two ‘hats’ – the health promoter hat and the role model hat. Leaders need to promote health and wellness as part of their day-to-day work and they need to actively engage in wellness as well.
Being a health promoting leader has a lot of benefits for you, your team and your workplace. Research shows that a focus on workplace health can improve perceptions of the organisation, create a greater sense of trust and commitment, improve morale and increase engagement and satisfaction.
A focus on wellness at work also makes employees want to stay. A study conducted with almost 30,000 employees in 15 countries showed that 64% of employees who thought of their organization as health promoting planned to stay for at least five years.
Being a health promoting leader need not be cumbersome. The best advice here is to simply make wellness possible. For example, if employees are ill and need time away, arrange extra support at work. Order healthy catering when opportunities arise, allow time for employees to engage in health related activities, and find ways to incorporate wellness into the work environment whether it be standing desks, more greenery or meetings outside.
A culture that supports health and wellness is more far important than a fancy wellness programme that is all lights and fireworks but not actually well supported in the workplace. Leadership is key to building such a culture.
In terms of be a role model, others will look to how you value health and the best example you can set is to do it yourself. Find ways to include wellness into your working style where you can. Do you take sick days when you’re ill? Other examples include arranging walking meetings, introducing a health initiative into key meetings, and focusing on your own sleep, physical activity, nutrition, stress management and social connectedness.
At the end of the day, the cost of putting time into health is worth it, because without your health, what can you (and by extension, your business) hope to achieve?
BusinessNZ. "Wellness in the Workplace Survey." Wellington, 2013.
Eriksson, Andrea, Runo Axelsson, and Susanna Bihari Axelsson. "Health Promoting Leadership–Different Views of the Concept." Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation 40, no. 1 (2011): 75-84.
Grant, Joseph M, and David A Mack. "Preparing for the Battle: Healthy Leadership During Organizational Crisis." Organizational Dynamics 33, no. 4 (2004): 409-25.
Gurt, Jochen, and Gabriele Elke. "Health Promoting Leadership: The Mediating Role of an Organizational Health Culture." In Ergonomics and Health Aspects of Work with Computers, 29-38: Springer, 2009.
Holt, Heather "The Cost of Ill Health." Wellington: New Zealand Treasury, 2010.
Towers Watson. "2013/2014 Staying@Work Report - Canadian Summary." 2014.
Worksafe Victoria. "Workhealth Checks: Selected Findings." Melbourne, 2012.
World Economic Forum. "The Workplace Wellness Alliance: Investing in a Sustainable Workforce." Geneva: World Economic Forum 2012.