Follow the leader: wellness from the top down

From improving engagement results to achieving better sleep quality, it is up to leaders to show by example how to bring wellbeing into the workplace, according to speakers at WORKTECH's Wellness 2019 event

It appears that an epidemic of depression and mental illness in the workplace has forced organisations to place wellbeing at the top of the business agenda. The reality is that mental illness has always existed in the workplace, but it has only recently become more socially acceptable to talk about it. How organisations respond to this challenge will shape the engagement and leadership strategies they adopt.

The Wellness 2019 conference, produced by WORKTECH and hosted at UBS’s 5 Broadgate London office on 5 June, championed employee wellness as a key priority for the workplace as 15 industry experts took to the stage to share experiences and showcase examples of successful wellness strategies.

Disengagement dilemma

The pace of change in the workplace is rapid, yet engagement is only increasing one per cent a year, according to Debra Corey, co-author of The Rebel Playbook. Research indicates that engagement has a lot to do with communication and leadership, yet a recent study showed that 58 per cent of employees trust a stranger more than their boss.

Louise Chester of Mindfulness at Work supported Corey’s argument, citing a survey of 35,000 leaders. According to Gallup, almost a quarter of employees are actively disengaged at work. Chester believes this is due to a crisis in leadership because it is the responsibility of leaders to set the right conditions for their staff. The survey she discussed found that 73 per cent of leaders only feel mindful at times, 68 per cent often fail to complete tasks and be present, yet 98 per cent of leaders would like to be more mindful. Based on this research, it was concluded that the three key attributes of a leader today are mindfulness, compassion and selflessness.

‘Leaders own engagement…’

A panel comprised of Ginny Chequer of Cisco, Jay Brewer of Unilever and Dr Alexandra Morris of Mitie agreed that leaders play an integral role in the wellbeing of their employees. Leaders now have a heightened awareness of staff wellbeing due to Gallup’s shocking engagement statistics – they  recognise that in order to demonstrate to employees that it is okay to take time out and be mindful, they have to lead by example.

However, taking time out doesn’t always improve engagement. Working from home can often be medically prescribed for burnout. Robert Thorpe, a research associate in the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, discussed the findings from research he conducted with Intel and WORKTECH Academy. His study, entitled Domestic Digital, revealed that many home workers do not have any guide to when it is acceptable to take a break. This means that often people who work from home feel overworked but don’t take a break to improve their wellness because they feel they are losing money or don’t have permission from a leader. Although various interventions have been made by organisations to help remote workers feel connected to the company, people still feel lonely and miss the daily interactions that happen in the office environment. This leads to remote workers mimicking the rhythm of the typical working day to try and form some structure in an unstructured environment.

Sleeping to the top

While organisations can influence how employees feel in their work environment, they have little control over the lifestyle of their people outside the office. Phil Bell and Josh Jackman of Art Health Solutions said that around 200,000 working days are lost a year due to sleep issues – lack of sleep can dramatically shift the mental state of an individual.

Mike Simpson of lighting expert Signify suggested that organisations can intervene in the office by adjusting the light settings at work to a white light which reportedly improves alertness, performance and sleep quality. However, Dr Els van der Helm of Shleep told the conference that this this is only part of the battle.

‘Inspiring leaders get more sleep…’

According to van der Helm’s research, 35 per cent of people say they sleep six hours or less a night, 48 per cent say they have a poor quality of sleep and 38 per cent accidentally fall asleep during the day. Yet research suggests that leaders who prioritise sleep are more successful and more inspiring. Leaders such as Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Jeff Bezos of Amazon claim that they always try and get eight hours sleep a night.

Sleep impacts nutrition, exercise, stress management, security, esteem and belonging. It also increases social interaction. An experiment showed that, after a good night’s sleep, people let others into their personal space more, whereas people who didn’t have a good night’s sleep kept their distance from others. This level of sleep deprivation can also induce depression and anxiety.

Wellbeing strategies

Organisations are starting to take more responsibility for their employee’s wellbeing and this is evident in the increasing emphasis on wellbeing strategies in the workplace. June Clark of Nestlé explained the journey Nestlé has been on. In 2013 the company adopted a strategic approach to wellbeing, this was redefined in 2017 and looking to 2020 Nestlé aims to create a more holistic approach. This means a more employee-centric strategy will be implemented in six key areas: leadership, alignment, scope, relevance and quality, accessibility, partnerships and communications.

‘Mental illness strives on stress…’

If this strategy sounds comprehensive and complex, Mark Rice-Oxley of The Guardian argued that there are two simple approaches organisations can take to supporting employee wellbeing: reactive and proactive. Most companies focus on recovery from illness, instead of prevention. Experts believe that 300 million people in the world suffer from depression – so the chances are that in every organisation there are people battling with mental illness.

Prevention of mental illness in the workplace can be addressed by reducing the number of stressors we encounter in the office. It is, of course, unreasonable to expect that we will never put our employees under pressure, but Rice-Oxley advices eight steps to employ a successful wellbeing strategy: leadership (it’s OK to not be OK), regular mental health check-ups, insurance to support mental health, first responders for mental health, more flexible working and an introduction of a four-day working week, mindfulness sessions (mandatory), team building, and technology to enable and help employees who are suffering.

Wellbeing strategies are now being worked into the fabric of the physical workplace. WORKTECH’s Wellness 2019 conference looked at two London case studies – Chiswick Park and 22 Bishopsgate, both instigated by the developer Sir Stuart Lipton – which have considered wellbeing from the outset. Chiswick Park has gained a reputation for its ‘enjoy work’ attitude reflected throughout the open-air spaces of its large office campus built in the late 1990s, focusing on wellbeing as much more than physical fitness. 22 Bishopsgate, the City of London’s tallest new development, is not yet completed but it has factored in much-anticipated space for physical and mental wellness retreats.

If these were helpful exemplars, then the overall message from Wellness 19 was that organisations struggling to boost engagement in the workplace should look to their leaders to set the best example for their teams.

View WORKTECH Academy’s exclusive video interview with Dr Els van der Helm, Founder of Shleep and keynote speaker at Wellness 2019, here:

Article published on: 19 August 2019
Find exclusive content in the


Premium content for Global Partners, Corporate and Community Members.
The latest analysis and commentary on the future of work and workplace in five distinct themes: Research & Insights, Case Studies, Expert Interviews, Trend Publications, and Technology Guides.