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Of all the lingering impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on people, organisations and societies, mental health and human wellness are among the most deserving of our time and attention.

For too long very human responses to fear, stress, uncertainty and being overwhelmed have been side-lined by organisations – and many societies – as a sign of weakness. Covid shone a light on often debilitating conditions like anxiety and depression, as incidences rose by up to 25%, according to the World Health Organisation. Over the past two years the pendulum has swung as leaders and human capital experts around the world have turned up the dial on employee wellness initiatives and creating more supportive workplaces – not always an easy task in an increasingly remote world of work. 

The likes of EY and McKinsey have produced reports and insights into how businesses can better monitor mental wellbeing and stop employees from feeling isolated and anxious, as well as address the stigma around mental health and wellness challenges through discussion, support and leadership role modelling. 

At the same time that organisations are driving an increasingly human-centric outlook, the people at the coalface of people management and interaction – the so-called middle managers – have come under sustained attack for being obsolete and redundant. “Say goodbye to your manager,” chimed The Atlantic and “It’s time to free the middle manager”, declared Harvard Business Review in 2021, citing the move away from physical office space and more effective tools for tracking and measuring employee output. 

It’s hardly surprising that middle managers are increasingly stressed, anxious and burned out. And yet, middle managers remain the most effective and essential tool at a company’s disposal to help embed and support wellness across an organisation. 

I have long felt that we don’t do enough to celebrate our managers. Nor do we acknowledge that top managers and leaders should shoulder the blame if middle management is deemed not to be doing its job. If leaders and senior managers are being effective, then there can be no bad managers. The so-called slackers and control freaks singled out as examples of middle manager inadequacy would have been weeded out long ago, leaving good middle managers to flourish. 

In short, the buck stops with the leadership of any organisation, be it a corporate giant, a small family operation or a government department. And this begs the question of how leaders themselves approach wellness? 

I’ve thought a lot about this over the past two years, as we rapidly steered our business school to digital teaching and online operations, tried to cater to changing needs and challenges, found new ways to connect with students and faculty and worked hard to stay ahead of the pack as higher education globally evolved overnight. I soon came to recognise that if I was not physically healthy myself, it would be extremely difficult for me to navigate these current conditions. 

As leaders, we often don’t take enough care of our physical health. Yes, it is possible to speak to a mentor or business coach to provide an outlet for the emotional and mental stressors of a top job, but because leaders are simply running too much, chasing the bottom line, solving people issues and trying to take care of everyone else, we often don’t take care of ourselves. 

Armed with this realisation and with the words of my colleague Dr Frank Magwegwe ringing through my ears – “all leaders should invest in their personal development, practice self-care, and seek support when things get too much” – I began to make a concerted effort to look after myself physically, with a view to best positioning myself to deal with the demands of a leadership position. I needed to sleep more, so I started doing that. I needed to exercise more, so I got moving. I needed to eat smartly, so I changed my diet. Nothing about this transition was new or original. I already knew on a theoretical level that without self-care no leader can be truly productive and effective, but I’d never put the systems in place in my own life to carve out time in my seven-days-a-week work schedule. 

Looking back, I wish I’d come to this realisation much earlier in my leadership journey. Having missed out on this trick, like any good convert I now take every opportunity to talk to younger people, younger leaders, younger aspirant individuals about looking after soul, mind and body in order to transform healthy habits into memory systems that kick in during times of shock and challenge. The theorists among us call this resilience, but I term it bouncing forward. 

Often in organisations, people are so thinly spread that they can’t bounce, never mind bounce forward. As leaders, we need to create space to bounce and bounce forward. We need to do this for ourselves as human beings as well as organisational role models for that essential layer of middle managers and junior managers, and for employees of all levels. Or, in my case, for the students, faculty and professional staff who make up our community. 

Wellness is a core pillar in the human-centric approach we try to uphold at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), but I am under no illusion that there is a difference between intent and action. While health and wellness are core components of our value proposition, I believe we still need to adequately articulate what that means. We need to ask ourselves and our GIBS community what healthy actually looks like and what we mean by anxiety, stress, fatigue and mental health. We need to explore the trade-offs in achieving that health and determine who pays for these interventions and where personal responsibility starts and ends. 

As leaders, I believe we run the risk of turning every wellness concern into a pathology if we don’t take the time to define it, and that could leave us running around in circles rather than treating underlying causes. For this reason, my approach to organisational and people wellness lies in understanding what the system issues are that are contributing to ill health – or positive health – and how these relate back to the decisions we are making as leaders. As leaders we need to understand the levers in our control, but we also need to ensure that personal agency forms part of this discussion.

We must be careful as leaders not to remove the agency from colleagues to make up their own minds about where they sit on the spectrum of health and wellness, and what help they need from their managers and organisations. We need to create the conditions for agency and then encourage agency. As a leader, my job is to create the conditions for health and wellness and to support people to use their agency to achieve the right balance at an individual level, a team level and ultimately at an organisational level. 

Furthermore, my job is to ensure that my personal decisions support my ability to operate effectively, fairly and in tune with the needs of my colleagues. If that means eating lettuce, then so be it. DM

Author: Professor Morris Mthombeni, Dean of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS)



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