Three Actions You Can Take to Improve Others’ Wellbeing at Work

Michael Glazer is a Tokyo-based Senior Consultant whose client work spans 15 countries across four continents. Learn more about Michael here.

We’ve all seen the headlines that the pandemic is pushing down health and wellbeing. One result is that skills related to mental and emotional wellbeing, like empathy and compassion, are forecast to be the most critical leadership skills in 2021 and for years to come. This should come as no surprise as 80% of respondents to one survey say they would quit their job over mental health, and 62% of employees who participated in another survey consider mental-health issues to be a top challenge during the COVID-19 crisis.

So, what can leaders and concerned colleagues do? A lot, actually.

There’s a broad spectrum of changes we can make, from making small adjustments to how we interact with our team members to integrating the principles of wellbeing into corporate culture and systems. In this article, I will highlight an example from the “small adjustments” end of the spectrum. I will write about the other end of the spectrum in a future article.

What Would You Do?

Imagine this: you are a mid-level leader. And Shinji is a high-performing, front-line manager on your team. Despite two challenging quarters this year, he has managed to keep the same positive disposition that you have come to expect from him.

During your weekly 1-on-1 meeting with Shinji, he asks if he can take an extended three-week vacation since he, like many others at his company, have a large surplus of vacation days, many of which rolled over from last year.

“Sure,” you say enthusiastically, trying to convey your support for Shinji and his self-care. “And please don’t worry about work while you’re away. The team and I will gladly cover for you. Enjoy your time off.”

Good conversation, right? Well, not exactly.

What Happened?

This is a summary of an actual conversation. Shortly after it ended, Shinji (not his real name) left for his vacation feeling more disconnected and unmotivated than before he asked for the time off. So, what happened?

Shinji’s wellbeing needs were not met during this conversation.

When I talked to him after his vacation, he told me he had gone into the meeting with two desires. First, he wanted his manager to show a genuine interest in his wellbeing. And second, he wanted to talk about his feeling that he is languishing at work. But he hesitated because he felt a degree of toxic positivity (e.g., rejecting or denying non-positive mindsets and emotions) during recent department meetings, so he wasn’t sure it was safe to share negative feelings with his manager.

Suggestion: Show a Genuine Interest

In this conversation, what Shinji said he wanted from his manager was for her to ask him why he felt he wanted an extended vacation now. He wanted to talk about how he feels like he is languishing, stressed and maybe even a little burned out. And research results from Google’s Project Oxygen find that “showing concern for success and well-being” is one of ten behaviors that make managers great. Weaving statements or questions like…

  • “You've worked especially hard through two tough quarters. I appreciate your effort and commitment. I also have some concern about you. How are you doing” or
  • “You've worked especially hard through two tough quarters. What's been tough for you over the past two quarters? What are you struggling with?"

Suggestion: Normalize and encourage expressions of emotions

…into the conversation could have helped Shinji talk about what was most important to him at the time: coping with feeling unmotivated and empty, and figuring out how to regain a higher sense of wellbeing at work.

Shinji went into the meeting looking for a signal that it would be safe to talk about his emotional and mental state. Yes, it would be ideal if Shinji were part of a team where expressing feelings, even difficult ones, were already the norm. Afterall, expressing our feelings is beneficial even at work – as outlined in the best-selling book No Hard Feelings.  

One action we could take here is to try to pick up on what Shinji is feeling and then communicate to him that his feelings are natural. Assuming that we had shown a genuine interest in Shinji, and that he opened up about what’s going on, we could try normalizing (a cognitive behavioral therapy term sometimes called validation) his feelings by making statements like:

  • “It sounds like you’re feeling worn out / unmotivated,” or
  • “Feeling worn out / unmotivated is understandable given the constant pressure you’ve been working through since last year”

But we can’t always count on the other person to share their feelings first. Whether or not we recognize it, as leaders, our own actions often set the tone as to what behaviors are and are not appropriate. So, when appropriate, making ourselves vulnerable through personal self-disclosure can send a clear signal to others that it’s okay to follow suit. For example, revealing (if true) that…

  • “I’ve felt my own energy levels and enthusiasm for work dip at times over the past few months,” or
  • “I have days where I feel I’m not my usual self, and that’s tough for me to deal with”

…can make it feel safe enough for others to share their own feelings. It also strengthens our social connections. And there’s plenty of evidence we need to do this, and employers can help.

Suggestion: Match the support you offer to what’s needed

Positive psychologist Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener writes that “for support to be received well, it needs to match what is desired.” As we know, this doesn’t always happen. Here is one common and funny example of mismatched support and need.

While offering heartfelt encouragement to take time off might seem like the supportive thing to do, researchers have found that people who are grappling with difficult feelings really need compassion and acceptance. Similarly, when the issue is wrestling with a practical problem, like regaining a sense of wellbeing, the underlying need is for tools, advice and assistance.

So, how do we figure out whether the true need is time off or something deeper?

What’s necessary is what Mark Goulston and John Ullmen call connective listening skills. And, in fact, it’s the skill that is common to all three suggestions above. Connective listening is “listening of the highest order, and it’s the human listening that all of us crave. It’s listening into other people to discover what’s going on inside them. It’s listening on their terms, not yours. It’s understanding where people are coming from to establish genuine rapport.”

And with rapport, comes the opportunity to influence. In Shinji’s case, and others like it, the opportunity is to positively influence others’ wellbeing. Doing this should matter to us as leaders because well-being is strongly correlated to better work performance and firm value, and as leaders, we influence all three.

Thanks for reading this article. You can find a list of my other posts by clicking here. I invite you to join people from 30 other countries around the world to the latest episodes of Humans At Work, my podcast that gives you fresh perspectives and actionable ideas for making working with other humans better for everyone.