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3 things leaders should do to support wellness in the workplace.

Two weeks ago, Angela and I attended a conference on workplace wellness and it was simultaneously affirming and disappointing. It was affirming to see an entire conference dedicated to a topic so near and dear to our heart. It was affirming to share the space with close to 200 business leaders across North America who decided that the topic was important enough for them to brave the cold, snowy weather to attend. It was affirming to hear a roundtable of CEOs talk about the negative impacts they’re seeing in their workplaces: high turnover, high leaves of absence, and in some industries, even suicides. We were all on the same page about the significance of the issue.

Overall, there was consensus that we’re at a critical turning point. There was no denying that we needed to do something about it. But real solutions were few and far between. It was great to hear about efforts to normalize mental health conversations in various workplaces. It’s great to see organizations investing in training on resilience, mindfulness, and stress-reduction techniques. But it wasn’t enough, not in our book.

It wasn’t until the last speaker took the stage that we finally felt like someone was pushing the conversation in the direction that it needed to go. Steve Cadigan dropped a hard truth in that room: “we have a broken model of work!” To us, trying to build wellness in the workplace without taking a good, hard look at how work is structured is like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle without half of the pieces. Can you do it? Probably, but it would be extremely difficult and frustrating, and the result is never that great.

So, what are the options? What can organizations do to take on their fair share of addressing this challenge and create workplaces that actually support wellness? Here are some of our thoughts:

1. Ask your team what makes their work challenging.

There are two kinds of challenges at work. The good kind inspires your team and helps them grow. The bad kind makes them feel overwhelmed, defeated, and unappreciated. The key difference between the good kind and the bad one: whether your team feels they have the adequate resources to tackle that challenge.

When your team feels that they have the time, the skills, tools, and support to give it a good try, a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is inspiring and motivating. But when your team feels that they do not have the appropriate support, time, skills, and tools to pursue those BHAGs, they feel doomed to fail before they even start.

Most leaders mistakenly assume that their team will always speak up if they need something. “I have an open door policy. My team knows they can come to me if they need something.” Let me ask you this, when was the last time you approached your boss to tell them that you do not have the adequate resources to achieve the targets that have been set for you? It’s not an easy conversation to have, is it? For many of us, having that conversation feels like admitting that we’re not good enough to be in our job. So, we stay quiet. We find ways to work smarter and harder instead of asking for the support that we need. And we wonder why we’re all feeling burnt out.

As leaders, you have the opportunity to create a structure and a safe space to check in with your team whether they have the resources they need to succeed. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Initiate the conversation and revisit it often. Ask them specific questions:

  • What makes your job difficult this week or this month? What needs to change to make it better?

  • How do you feel about your goals this quarter? What feels achievable and what feels out of reach?