Since late 2021, chief executives and their talent officers have come to our conversations and coaching sessions charged with a new intensity. The demands of leading through the unprecedented complexities, challenges, and responsibilities of the Covid pandemic – as well as the calls to action for social justice these last few years – have added a new sense of urgency and purpose to their work.
With the pandemic adding pressure on multiple areas of business and personal lives, the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the American Psychological Association are warning that the Covid pandemic has created a secondary health crisis, namely a mental health and resilience challenge that will also be global and, cross-industry and will impact both frontline employees and leaders. What’s more, according to Oracle’s 2021 study of more than 12,000 employees across 11 countries, C-Suite executives reported higher levels of mental strain from Covid 19 compared to employees.
While these data are important, rising levels of executive stress were increasingly a pre-Covid concern. In his 2018 study of executives, Lowinn Kibbey, Global Head of Johnson & Johnson’s Human Performance Institute, pointed to higher expectations, greater scrutiny and “unprecedented levels of stress” as underlying reasons for high executive turnover rates. With neuroscientific, organizational, and human development research connecting leader well-being to company performance, profits, adaptability, and retention, leader stress is an organizational concern that requires intentional and structured interventions to shift results.
How Executive Coaches Can Help
Executive coaching is uniquely positioned to support leaders through the stress of leadership in dynamic change and even help leaders build healthier organizational cultures and outcomes. Working alongside leaders with the clarity of outsiders with insider understanding, coaches can help establish pathways to create and sustain leader well-being and organizational performance.
Coaches and leaders can normalize and promote well-being as exemplary coaching practice by intentionally integrating leader well-being into coaching plans.
Here are a few focused actions that senior leaders and their coaches can take to put well-being alongside traditional business objectives in a leader’s development and coaching plan:
- Prioritize well-being plans. Create well-being structured plans as part of executive development and growth strategies with the same rigor and goals as other key growth strategies. More than simply add-on components and exercise regimens, well-being plans set goals, identify mental, physical, and social supports and strategies, and identify accountability partners for the leader. As with all effective plans, milestones and measures are essential for action and follow-through.
- Build support and social networks. Leading at the top can be isolating to the point of loneliness; this can diminish cognitive function as well as empathy, two essential leadership capacities. Experienced executive coaches who are well-versed in this sense of separation from others can acknowledge this sense of isolation with their clients and can talk with them about building trusted, supportive networks of mentors and friends as well as non-work activities to connect with people who share passions that have meaning for them.
- Intentionally model healthy behaviors. Coaches can encourage leaders to frame healthier behaviors with intention and encourage these healthy work habits in others. Silence about mental and physical well-being care are 20th century behaviors, whereas forward-looking and acting leaders are and will be as open about their pro-healthy work behaviors as about other strategies for success.
Leaders and their coaches can work together to explore meaningful ways to communicate the leader’s well-being actions, so they are seen and received as positive influence and adopted by others.
Options such as “I have a go-to group of business friends and thinking partners who are good listeners and help me stay at my best” and “Next weekend is my three-day ‘unplugged’ weekend, so make sure you get any questions to me by Thursday morning by 8” provide tangible examples others can follow as well as demonstrate leadership in action.
When leaders are open about their well-being plans and actions, they allow others to do the same and encourage an environment that values well-being. Courageous? Perhaps. But simple.