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02 Dec 2021
by Brendan Street

Leading by example to protect workplace physical and emotional wellbeing

Our society of over-workers is thriving, with long hours and extreme exhaustion symbolising professional success. Research shows employees are putting in an average nine hours of unpaid overtime per week. Many of us simply work long hours to keep our jobs, pay off debt, or so we're first in line for that dream promotion. However, for employees that adopt a culture of long, intense work hours, there's often a performative element involved.




Overwork is seen as a status symbol, signalling the pathway towards employee success. The added impact of Covid has meant it’s not only employees overworking, but their managers and those in other senior positions. Regrettably, furlough schemes and mass redundancies meant tighter deadlines, increased workloads and higher fears surrounding job security. Consequently, managers experienced heightened strain as they took on additional work of newly missing team members.

Helping yourself to support others

The problem with overworking is it’s a top-down issue and can only be tackled by a fundamental shift at management levels. One of the big issues here is many in leadership positions have persuaded themselves there’s no problem with it. 

However, managers should acknowledge they risk poor mental and physical health and burnout if they persist with overworking. Not only this, but they are not modelling healthy behaviours to their teams, which could have wide adverse ramifications.

The more employees that follow your example, the more likely it is negative side-effects and health issues spread to become a company-wide problem.

First steps

Take breaks. Take all your annual leave. Schedule designated time where your devices are turned off, and you don't look at them. Everyone needs opportunities for headspace throughout the day and your team should know this is a company-wide expectation.

Take some time to assess the current working habits of those around you. Check how they feel about their workloads by running a few short, informal meetings, either online or in-person, so teams don’t feel further stressed.

An effective workplace treatment plan combines physical offerings like private health assessments, onsite or subsidised gym memberships with emotional wellbeing support.

Managing mental health

Leading by example is all well and good, if you feel confident in doing so. If not, ask about the possibility of additional training like mental health first aid, to help you spot the tell-tale signs of possible mental health issues in yourself and other team members.

Company offerings like employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and cognitive behavioural therapy may be something to discuss as a permanent investment. Digital or virtual therapy solutions can be effective too, with some research suggesting counselling conducted online is as effective as face-to-face sessions. During 2020 Nuffield Health therapists delivered 3.7 million minutes of therapy remotely.

Physical wellbeing

Research suggests work professionals who look after their physical health are more effective leaders. Frequent exercise boosts the volume of certain brain regions like the hippocampus, which increases the brain’s ability to process new information.

Managers should look for gaps in their routines to replace sedentary moments with exercise. Why not try shaking up work routines with activities by organising walking work meetings? These can make gatherings more useful as employees are less like to become lethargic during a brisk walk. 

As restrictions continue to lift, take advantage of any company benefits like lunchtime fitness classes and discounted or free memberships to local gyms. Look for opportunities to participate in sponsored fitness events like a fundraising run. Encourage people to join you, to promote more physical activity across your teams.

For those working from home, offer a level of flexibility for when people choose to exercise. This is so employees feel secure exercising when it is convenient for them. It’s important those who began a fitness routine during lockdown do not stop because they feel guilty working out when others are in the office. 

The author is Brendan Street, head of charity at Nuffield Health. Brendan is a BABCP accredited cognitive behavioural psychotherapist and NMC-registered mental health nurse.

The author is Brendan Street, head of charity at Nuffield Health. He is a BABCP Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist and NMC registered
Mental Health Nurse.

This article is provided by Nuffield Health.

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