Wellbeing matters for high performance at work

This actually should not come as a surprise to anybody. If you had to define what hinders you to do focused and challenging work, you’d likely mention things like feeling tired, stressed, hungry, cold or too hot, sad, pressured, angry, anxious or in pain. When thinking of states of being, that are conducive to deep work or high performance, you’d mention: feeling relaxed, appreciated, trusted, valued, energetic, having enough time, feeling physically comfortable, feeling curious, feeling happy, feeling connected, having fun or feeling in flow. And science backs this in multiple ways:

  • Our brains don’t work with full focus and attention when we are stressed or overwhelmed. (If you want to read more about attention and focus, read: Peak Mind from Amishi Jha)
  • There is a connection between loneliness, depression and dementia, in other words the opposite of feeling well and having great mental capacities, often starts with loneliness and a lack of connection or the lack of a sense of belonging.
  • Innovation happens in playful, trusting spaces that allow for mistakes and exploration without punishment for failing experiments. (Prof. KH Kim published how playfulness connects to creativity and innovation in this post)
  • Happy and resilient people outperform their peers (see sources below)

Just before Christmas I got a list of the top 15 articles published by MIT sloan management review in 2022. It was fascinating to see that their most widely read articles focused on employee engagement, toxic or happy culture, and transformative leadership. There were two in that top 15 list, that specifically spoke to the connection of wellbeing and performance:

  1. Josh Bersin: “Mental Health Has Become a Business Imperative”:
    He writes, that their research “examined which business and people practices have the most impact on business outcomes, people outcomes, and innovation. This analysis points to the importance of transitioning from the traditional focus on employee benefits to one that encompasses job and work design, management, rewards practices, a demonstrated commitment to psychological safety and fairness, and a culture of employee listening.
    This research shows that “healthy” organizations outperform their peers in a range of ways. Rates of absenteeism are almost 11 times more likely to be lower, and these employers are more than three times more likely to retain people. Companies that care about staff well-being are at least twice as likely to delight customers, to be identified as a “great place to work,” and to exceed financial targets. These companies also adapt more readily to change and are more effective at innovating.”
  2. Paul Lester, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman: “Top Performers Have a Superpower: Happiness”:
    They published research following “almost 1 million U.S. Army soldiers for nearly five years. We first asked them to rate their well-being — their happiness, if you will — along with their optimism, and then tracked which soldiers later received awards based on their job performance. We collected our data in the midst of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so the stakes were high: Some of those awards were for exemplary assigned job performance, while others were earned for extraordinary performance in heroic actions. Receiving an award in the Army, either for exemplary job performance or for heroism, is a relatively rare event. Of the nearly 1 million soldiers in our sample, only 12% received an award of any type during the five years that we ran the study.
    While we expected that well-being and optimism would matter to performance, we were taken aback by just how much they mattered. We saw four times as many awards earned by the initially happiest soldiers (upper quartile) compared with those who were unhappiest initially (lower quartile) — a huge difference in performance between those groups. This gap held when we accounted for status (officers versus enlisted soldiers), gender, race, education, and other demographic characteristics. In fact, happiness — and, to a somewhat lesser extent, optimism — were better predictors of awards than any demographic factor we examined.”
Bad or toxic culture leads to resignations

While the previously mentioned two articles clearly show how wellbeing and performance are linked, we can also see how the opposite of thriving and inclusive cultures (namely toxic, non-inclusive, abusive, cut-throat cultures) drives people to leave their employers. An analysis of glassdoor reviews and their sentiments done by Charles Sull, Donald Sull and Ben Zweig clearly made a connection between toxic culture and the big resignation. To me it feels like the pandemic, with all its extra stressors, served like a big pressure cooker, that brought a lot of issues to the surface that we were previously too busy to pay attention to. Spending more time alone and at home, forced us all to look at our lifes, giving us time to reflect on what matters to us, what gives us joy and what adds more stress. And many of us are ready to make changes based on our insights. Employees are no longer willing to accept toxic culture behaviors, which they describe as disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat or abusive. They simply quit and look for a new work environment that treats them better. (Source: https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/why-every-leader-needs-to-worry-about-toxic-culture/)

So what do we as leaders do when becoming aware that wellbeing and performance are linked?

Leadership and working successfully with people are ultimately all about relationships. What makes relationships thrive is building up the good parts. The friendship, the connection, our ability to be vulnerable with each other, paying attention to each other, acknowledging each other, and supporting each other: everything that builds trust, connection and a sense of belonging. All these behaviors also add to our joy and happiness. In their presence we feel seen, we feel appreciated, we feel valued, and we feel encouraged and empowered to take audacious steps into a future we want for ourselves. The good news is, the relating behaviors are something we can easily learn and start doing:

  • Paying attention to what our peers and team members state and either simply listening, or offering the question “What would best support you?”
  • Creating spaces where speaking about emotions and your mental health status is permitted and normalized (plus training your leaders on how to react to signs of mental health distress)
  • Making learning about and practicing things like meditation, breath work, relaxation techniques, yoga and/or ways to pay attention to your physical and emotional signals accessible to your teams (without forcing anyone to participate)
  • Training our ability for self-compassion and our ability to sit with others in a compassionate way by working on our listening skills and our ability to simply accompany and be with whatever is there (without feeling the need to fix anything)
  • Learning how vulnerability and trust building work and how they create the foundation of psychological safety. This is about becoming more ok with the courage it takes to open up and be brave in uncertain and uncomfortable circumstances. You can model this e.g. by admitting that you don’t have all the answers, but that you trust that the team will find them jointly.
  • Listening and making sure that all perspectives and identities are welcome and permitted in our spaces (as long as they are not attempting to dominate the space, or advance dehumanizing, separating and othering those who are not like them). There are great tools about learning to take perspectives that can be brought to you or your team in a coaching or workshop context.
  • Providing your teams with tooling that helps them learn about and practice these concepts on an ongoing basis. There are online learning journeys, integrations into workplace tools like Slack, etc… Reach out if you’d like to hear recommendations for vendors in that space.

The good news here is: There is a lot you as a leader can do to create a work culture that leads to thriving teams. Your own wellbeing, and that of everyone in your team is part of the foundation your business success is resting on. Don’t take my word for it, just look at all the science that either predicts resignations or predicts high performance. It all anchors on aspects of the culture you co-create with your team, and wellbeing, belonging, trust, inclusivity, interdependence, joy, play and happiness are important features of that culture. They’re characteristics of innovative and high performing teams. A sense of Belonging, Flexibility and Inclusivity are the top drivers of happiness at work, with the role of managers gaining in importance since the pandemic had started and many of us started to work remote (Source: World Happiness Report 2021):


The World Happiness Report, which is based on Gallup World Poll data gives us some clear insights into the aspects we as leaders can focus on to foster more wellbeing and happiness at work. It’s a long read, but the above picture gives you an idea where you can focus in your organization. Why not take this picture into one of your upcoming team meetings to have a conversation about this and brainstorm ideas together where you want to focus to improve wellbeing and happiness in your team. And if your team likes to listen to podcasts as a source of inspiration “The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos” is a great one to listen to.

If you would like to explore this more: reach out for a free discovery session with me.
I coach, speak, do workshops and blog about #leadership, #product leadership, #innovation, the #importance of creating a culture of belonging and how to succeed with your #hybrid or #remote teams.

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