Wellbeing in the workplace – and its role in leadership

Coaching business leadership wellbeing leadership

James Stringer


Thinking, sitting, and engaging with computers and phones is dominating many working environments, so it’s hardly surprising that this raises questions about the wellbeing challenges this creates. How can executive coachingwith its primary focus on the achievement of one’s goals within the organisation, align with improving the wellbeing of the individual? And how can time spent on this be justified in the context of immediate benefits to the organisation?

“When we are tired or injured, our mood can be deeply affected and our interpretation of events altered dramatically.”

Christine Le Scanff, Head of Research and Programme Development at Brave

At Brave, our executive clients often ask questions like these. First, let’s explore how wellbeing is something that’s realised through the mind and body, and the links between them—our emotions. All too often, we spend much of our time in our minds, thinking, and can overlook the significance that our bodies play in how well we perform. As Ken Robinson observed in his acclaimed 2006 TED Talk, “many professors look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads … a way of getting their head to meetings”. Fortunately, this disconnect is not shared by our own professor, Brave’s Head of Research and Programme Development Christine Le Scanff. As well as being a leader in the psychological determinant of stress, emotional regulation and risk taking, Christine is a role model for the integration of both academic and physical achievement at the highest level. “The body and mind are in constant dialogue with one another. Unquestionably, our interpretation of reality, our thoughts and the emotions we attach to them directly impact our physiology, which is both a deeply ingrained part of our conditioning and a core survival instinct. However, this is not a one-way street; the body affects the brain too. For example, when we are tired or injured, our mood can be deeply affected and our interpretation of events altered dramatically.”

What state are you in?

Optimum performance then, in any activity we undertake, is not simply reliant on our level of knowledge and skill, it is a function of our state too. We use the word ‘state’ here not solely in the context of emotional state, but in a broader sense to incorporate the condition of our entire mind-body system in any given moment. In order to perform at our best, we need to inhabit a state that gives us access to our skills, thus allowing us to flow and perform optimally.

Effective coaching delivers significant wellbeing benefits through guiding an individual toward better self-leadership. Optimum wellbeing is of direct correlation to good self-leadership, as it is unlikely that we will achieve it within the current lifestyles most of us lead without significant effort.

Self-leadership is not only required to embrace the discipline to eat healthily, sleep well and exercise efficiently, but also to guide ourselves safely through the challenges of daily life and work. For most executives, pressure and stress are no stranger. If we do not take care of our body, our stress resistance will be weaker, and our ability to perform will decrease.

Despite its bad rap, stress can be a key ingredient for optimising performance, in activating our nervous system and motivating our mind. After all, stress is a normal part of life. It is when we don’t know how to cope with it, when we lose our confidence in our ability to succeed, that it can become a problem.

Although self-leadership is a skill that ‘effective’ coaching helps to develop, coaching is less about learning new skills and more about optimising the skills and inner resources we already have. We all possess incredible abilities, and often only use a fraction. In the majority of instances, the individuals we coach already have everything required to excel, they just need a little help to access it. An important note here: we’re not building dependency. Instead, we unlock the self-awareness needed to better access these resources and optimum states when they’re needed, so clients get to perform at their best regularly, and with greater ease.

Effective coaching then, and the self-leadership it encourages, helps to ensure that the pressure and stress we encounter has a more positive than negative influence on our wellbeing.

We communicate and influence outwardly through our body – ‘you cannot not influence’

As we have discussed, we really can’t divorce the mind and body, and both are important to our performance in business. Condition of body, and our state in the moment, clearly influences our personal performance and productivity. Yet there is another aspect of leadership where our body’s impact is often grossly overlooked: its role in our communication with others.

“Your larynx also moves in various ways, creating the sound of your emotions. Put another way, it has the gift of giving away your feelings”

Andrew Hambly-Smith, Co-CEO of Brave

Communication and leadership is an act, it is something that we ‘do’ that impacts others directly. Our body, therefore, is in fact the vessel through which we communicate and lead outwardly. Most people perhaps realise that allowing our posture to slump is a potential long-term health issue if it becomes a habit, but how many appreciate its immediate effect on our communication with others?

Team members we are leading will be affected by the way we are using our body, even though they may not be conscious of it. We’re certainly not talking about guessing the meaning of someone’s body language here. To illustrate the point more vividly, let’s consider our voice. Physical changes in our body make the way we sound such a direct broadcast of our emotional state.

For example, if we are feeling stressed negatively, our state-change causes our larynx, or voice box, to literally change shape. This will then alter the sound, which is likely to impact on the listener’s interpretation of our words and meaning. Andrew Hambly-Smith says “Your larynx creates vibrations, a sound you provide with a shape and then articulate, primarily in the mouth. These form into words through a series of complex movements. Your larynx also moves in various ways, creating the sound of your emotions. Put another way, it has the gift of giving away your feelings”.

We could argue therefore that we are in fact ‘doing’ emotions with the whole of us, and our state is a culmination of the influences of this ‘whole body’ experience. This will be viewed, or unconsciously perceived, by others. What people see, hear and feel about us will in turn, influence us further as we absorb these external influences.

And herein lies a major issue in leadership. When people are talking about values that they do not personally embody, or saying something they don’t really believe, the incongruence between the message and the messenger that this creates is a significant contribution to uncertainty. This lack of ‘psychological safety’ negatively impacts on performance.

Appreciating the impact of our body and its sound on others, it is easy to see how Andrew’s former career as a professional opera singer helped him to become one of Europe’s leading coaches in the field of impactful communication. It is one thing knowing how to make an amazing sound, yet it is quite another to call on the kind of experience gained from performing brilliantly every night in front of thousands of people, with incredible vocal demands, even when you’re feeling terrible.

Many individuals struggle to have their desired impact or deliver their message effectively because the voice, its speed and pitch are directly influenced by emotions. When we’re stressed or nervous, the body switches into fight or flight mode, making the heart rate speed up, releasing adrenaline and cortisol and forcing muscles to contract – including those in our chest, throat, jaw and vocal chords. Understandably, this can make effective public speaking quite a challenge.

The role of the body in our modern modes of screen-based or remote communication is also worth considering. Frequently now, business is conducted with either a limited view (Skype or Zoom) or no view (phone) of each other. This is where the voice has even greater impact, and the potential to interpret, or mis-interpret emotion is heightened. We communicate so much through tone and the music of speech; the pause we use and even the sound of our breath as we exhale and inhale. It all transmits the way we feel and is a crucial (yet often undervalued) aspect of how we build authentic relationships with people we may never actually see. We’ve previously written about the surprising benefits of remote coaching which will, out of necessity, increase our sensitivity.

Wellbeing – an immediate ROI

So, does effective coaching positively improve an individual’s personal wellbeing? Absolutely, and in many tangible ways, including:

  • Accessing more resourceful states (sometimes simply listening can be the most powerful intervention, really listening, actively and fully. And the more senior the executive, often the more important this is)
  • Better self-leadership
  • Greater capacity to focus and regulate one’s emotions
  • And many more.

But the benefits don’t end there. As an individual’s performance and productivity is enhanced, this creates a much broader return on the coaching investment as their changes in behaviour ‘ripple out’ and positively affect the wellbeing of those with whom they interact:

  • A leader’s better emotional regulation improves the ‘psychological safety’ of others – proven to greatly enhance team performance (more on that in a later blog)
  • Greater congruence between the ‘message’ and the ‘messenger’
  • A more positive influence on others, which catalyses the results and changes you want to see happen
  • And much, much more!

Even with this short list, it is clear that the wellbeing benefits of effective coaching provide an immediate as well as longer-term return for both the individual and the organisation. Now that’s what we’d call a healthy return on investment.