How Managers can evolve into Wellbeing Champions’


An Introduction

I spent 13 years in the Army – a soldier, an officer, a leader and a manager; the culture was supportive of employee wellbeing and welfare, despite not specifically broaching the topic of mental health.

Setting the example was everything. To set a bad example risked all credibility and, with it, trust and influence as a leader. We all had to be role models – both in terms of physical fitness and mental resilience – and to remain empathetic to the changing needs of those we served.

What came with the job was trust in us to make judgments, to know when to demand best effort and when to slow down, creating time and space for people. Any individual or collective capability had a solid foundation of wellbeing, and, with an authentic values-based approach, we achieved alignment.

With alignment you know that, when the work gets tough, people move heaven and earth to follow you into uncertainty; often, they may have already seized the initiative and acted on your behalf. We were in effect, true Wellbeing Champions and, from that, everything else took care of itself. 

But what are Wellbeing Champions meant to champion in organisational cultures?

Wellbeing is a state where mind and body are in alignment and functioning as one for optimum performance. Sometimes we need to reset and stabilise our wellbeing. If you are well, you are in a state where you can achieve what you set out to with the time, space and permission to invest in and repeat the daily habits that protect that wellbeing. 

What isn’t enough?

To be a Wellbeing Champion, just doing some training is just not enough.

Telling people what’s important for them but not doing it yourself isn’t enough.

To be a true Wellbeing Champion, you need to be a leader, manager or someone with influence and responsibility for managing the risk work-related stress for others i.e. your team.

That manager should be living the organisational values, be true to their own values and be repeating the daily habits and behaviours that protect their own wellbeing; they should also be setting an example in the way they work (others will follow suit), so not overworking and not overloading themselves.

This should apply to every manager – it is what we should all be doing already, but many do not know how. There isn’t anything wrong with this because there is always opportunity to grow, but if they do know how but aren’t doing it, often it is because people get stuck at the point of intention and don’t follow through with the required action.

If you expect others to do the same as you, you must be a visibly healthy example yourself. In the context of your own line of work, a Wellbeing Champion should be someone who understands the nature and impact of people’s work, the organisational values, and the culture inside out.

But to be authentic, you must start with yourself; to know yourself, to look after yourself and then retain or create capacity for others without it compromising your own health and wellbeing.

The reason that authenticity and example-setting are so important is that they help a manager get to and stay at stage three of psychological safety – contributor safety.

“The Four Stages Of Psychological Safety”, Timothy R Clarke

That means that a manager does not feel exposed when it comes to supporting the wellbeing of others but rather, they feel safe, secure and confident in sharing knowledge and skills with others – they themselves are safe in the knowledge that they are walking the walk. Members of a team recognise that authenticity builds a sense of permission for them; a lack of credibility and authenticity would compromise the sense of belief and safety that those people have in that manager. For both, they feel safe enough to contribute fully within a positive team dynamic without reservation.

Current challenges managers are facing – ‘dealing with their own stuff’

As managers we may not have the awareness or capacity (time, space and permission again) to serve and support others effectively if we can’t support ourselves. Some examples of what managers have been enduring these last few years that deserve recognition are:

  • Ongoing or a relentless sense of worry, pressure and stress
  • Uncertainty and regular change and perhaps an acute life event
  • A default of worrying about or supporting others rather than themselves
  • A lack of awareness of mental health risks despite living with those risks
  • The manager’s own ‘sense’ of wellbeing and state of health
  • Crossing a personal health ‘threshold’, perhaps for the first time

The assumption is that everyone out there has been negatively affected by the pandemic and has degraded over time, some voting with their feet during ‘the great resignation’, but some research suggests a different story.

Many have thrived, creating and seizing opportunities to manage their teams more actively or to step up into management for the first time. Many people have been taken out of their comfort zones, shown great resilience, set an example and demonstrated the emotional agility to carry their teams through crisis, helping their organisations to grow.

That said, Gartner recently conducted some research finding that when employees work hard and risk compromising their health and wellbeing, they don’t respond significantly to recognition and rewards for their hard work.

What they want – and what makes a difference to them – is to move on from the ‘hard’ and to make work easier for them in future. So, to recover and sustain wellbeing, organisations should be looking to make the job of the manager easier to navigate (Gartner research 2022), digging into the detail, engaging their managers, and working with them to find more energising and less depleting ways of working so that cultures can evolve and thrive.

Serving the Team

Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist and New York Times best-selling author, says that “it’s easy to villainise the messenger”.

With employees more actively communicating their evolving needs in the workplace, and much change in the ways organisations have had to adapt, this provides managers with an ongoing challenge. They are being squeezed between organisational leaders and team members, and more than ever doing their best to meet evolving needs on both sides, draining them of emotional energy.

Managers often report to not having their learning and development needs met to do their jobs properly. Without that, as managers, if struggling with increased work demand and low emotional energy we can be quick to judge team members, blame them for a lack of discretionary effort (which has become an expected norm in workplaces it seems), absence, disengagement and perhaps for a sense of ‘letting us down’. Blame and judgement are toxic in working environments which need alignment, resilience and high-performing teams.

We must remember that times have been tough and either holding onto or expressing anger or frustration with someone else’s evolving needs serves no purpose. It will disconnect you as a manager from the employee and perhaps over time, from empathy itself. Where empathy and compassion are lacking, the toxic roots of assumption and judgement take hold.

You may also struggle in retaining focus on the job in hand and from successfully delivering on the task of understanding people’s wellbeing needs and acting swiftly to meet them.

To align a team, finding a balance of holding team members to account, mentoring, providing support and managing work demand is key to help employees get back to their best and know how to stay there, whilst not derailing and marginalising yourself in the process.

I’ve been guilty of this many times myself and, on reflection, usually it’s been when I’ve not been in a good place myself, have been worried about my work or perhaps lost perspective and objectivity – basically when I pushed myself too hard and have been consumed by ‘my own stuff’.

As managers, we carry a responsibility for creating a safe environment and the conditions for employees to contribute and to thrive, independent of how we do things ourselves.

The eminent psychologist Martin Seligman believes that “wellbeing is a birthright” but we do still rely of course on our team to show up for us and fulfil their roles, to deliver within their business functions and to get the work done.

An Example

You have a deadline that’s important to you and you are partially reliant upon your team. You need to get the task completed by the end of the day to avoid some knock-on effects.  Perhaps the employee calls in sick, which influences your ability to guarantee the completion of this task. It could threaten your own perceived success. So what?

It consumes your attention, and it needs a solution: someone else (perhaps you) needs to pick up the slack.

Indeed, but if you allow yourself to brood over it may risk influencing your view of the team member not just for hours, but for days, weeks or longer…fuelling an unintended bias in your subconscious mind, if not your conscious one.

And what may be the source of this judgment? Is it the actions of the employee or is it a reflection of your own mindset as a manager, your need for control or a reflection of your own state of wellbeing in general?

Of course, as managers we need to be on top of our own stuff, and to lead our teams, but we must also keep our heads, remain objective and support others appropriately.

In my mind, a good manager is someone who creates a supportive team climate with plenty of time, space and permission for team members, but not without an appropriate level of accountability, expectation and a clear eye on output and performance.

Performance here is fundamentally generated from an inclusive and solid foundation of respect, trust and mutual understanding, giving team members clear guidance and the time, space and permission they need to thrive.

Autonomy is not always positive for people who aren’t used to it.  With an approach of granting full autonomy, there is a risk of exploitation – where employees are given so much freedom, they get stuck through stress and fear or that they consciously start to cross boundaries. Perhaps telling the manager what is happening, not seeking clarification when needed, starting to ‘do their own thing’ are indicators of misalignment or disengagement. So where is the responsibility?

Simply put, it is shared – through regular and clear two-way communication at every stage and at every level.

Blame and judgment also create a sense of hierarchy, division and disconnection. Support and empathy foster genuine authentic flat structures, where people feel like equals. Worrying too much about your own work as a manager, or the outputs of the team rather than the inputs doesn’t foster psychological safety; it compromises it. Psychological safety requires clarity of expectations, effective communication, shared responsibility for wellbeing and of course setting the right example in the first place. 

If things go wrong for your team members and you are there to support them through a crisis, enabling them to find their own solution (even if it compromises your own spare capacity in the short term), they will be there to support you when it goes wrong for you. As Gartner suggest, if we learn from hardship and make things easier in the future, it will not go unnoticed.

Psychological safety in teams is compromised by an autocratic approach to management, which can be felt acutely by employees even if it is unintended by the manager. It can be a reflection of the manager’s own attitude to their own wellbeing or a lack of awareness and action.

So let us assume that an ‘active’ Wellbeing Champion cannot be consumed by their role and unable to look after their own health and wellbeing. A Wellbeing Champion cannot be someone who compromises psychological safety for others around them; therefore, the responsibility for managers to stay on top of their ‘own stuff’ is paramount for the wellbeing, engagement and performance of the team.

What does good look like?

“With many management functions increasingly becoming automated, there will still be a place for managers. Companies who do away with them in favour of automation may struggle.” Gallup, 2022

Managers should therefore perhaps evolve into mentors, spending more of the time they have freed up on people and becoming more human-centred.

Apps will never be able to judge, support, guide, empathise and mentor with team members, but authentic Wellbeing Champions can.

What qualities and skills should a Wellbeing Champion be acquiring?

My view is that all managers should become Wellbeing Champions, but many are still struggling themselves, so this may take some time. The active, human-centred manager IS a Wellbeing Champion if they set the right example. Conversely, passive performance-centred managers are not; they may overly rely on metrics, a fixed and short-term mindset, and a performance culture to manage people and their outputs, without much thought to the input. Passive managers are fundamentally missing the point and the opportunity to really empower employees to perform to look after themselves and their full potential.

Wellbeing Champions should develop self-awareness and know how to practice effective self-care first They should be authentic and personally invested in supporting team members to meet their evolving needs. They should be excellent communicators, retain the capacity to remain objective but also be empathetic and have an ability to home in on the important issues which present as priorities, prepared to hold people to account and be firm when it is required.

They should develop and optimise these communication skills, being good listeners aware of work-related stress risks, being far enough ahead of these risks to anticipate the impact of change upon their team. For a manager to feel confident and contribute fully to their role, they need to feel psychologically safe themselves, understanding how to identify the barriers to it. To represent themselves and their team properly they must be brave enough to call out what’s wrong and to positively influence workplace conditions and culture.

The best-case scenario is that Wellbeing Champions become pioneers, acting as catalysts to optimise working cultures and lead organisations in the direction of undiscovered opportunities where wellbeing underpins performance and growth.

Our accredited Wellbeing Champion course – hosted on our distributed training system Genesis – is bookended with a session covering our reason why and an upskill which provides the structure and resources for managers to properly develop influence within teams and organisations. The core programme builds knowledge and skills in the following areas:

  • Understanding the common mental health issues
  • Advocating for mental health awareness
  • The ability to spot the signs of mental ill health
  • Promoting positive wellbeing and workplace benefits

An opportunity to train your managers

With Genesis, our unifying learning solution, whether ‘Champion’ trained or not, managers have the mechanism, structure and resources to acquire targeted and relevant knowledge and skills and apply it for their own benefit. The organisation and the manager however must take responsibility to set the conditions for the manager to learn and implement these key elements; in simple terms they need the time, space and permission to acquire the confidence and capability to apply these whilst remaining well themselves.

The 3 Components of Eleos Wellbeing Champion Development:

Genesis Manager – starting with yourself. This includes developing sound mental health awareness, learning about and practicing effective self-care and building mental fitness and resilience. Furthermore, Genesis covers communications skills development specific to mental health and wellbeing and broadens a contextual understanding of team dynamics and the working environment.

Wellbeing Champion Training – our formal live training to qualify as an accredited Wellbeing or Mental Health Champion.

Genesis for Teams – all the resources needed by a manager to drive a relatable and ongoing conversation with your team in only fifteen minutes a week.

Summary

Being a true Wellbeing Champion creates psychological safety as well as the space and permission for the team, achieved through promoting the benefits of positive wellbeing and creating the conditions for a supportive culture.

However, the team need managers to set the example – in the way they work and manage their own wellbeing; so, it all starts with the manager themselves. By the manager learning how to create the time, space and permission for themselves and adopting new habits and behaviours, the team will see the opportunity and feel the sense of permission through the example set to do the same.

Supported by clarity and consistency the rest will start to take care of itself.


If you would like support in developing Wellbeing Champions in your organisation, please get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

Written by: Tim Rushmere, Co-Founder

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