The age when it was acceptable to push employees until they break has long passed. Some businesses still squeeze their workers dry, of course, but few would admit to it. Most employers have long since figured out that people perform better when they’re happy, or at least engaged, and that this makes their businesses perform better too.
That’s all very well and good, but it often overlooks one small but important group: the bosses. Yes, yes, the guys with the huge salaries, corner offices and company cars - you can almost hear the world's smallest violin playing the sympathy symphony. Yet if you think about the forces that tend to harm employee wellbeing, they’re usually even more pronounced for senior leaders or entrepreneurs.
Pressure to deliver? That’s a big yes. Senior people are usually less reliant on their paycheque to survive the week, but that hardly makes them blasé about their careers. Besides, leaders are responsible for more than just themselves: their decisions can affect the lives and careers of sometimes hundreds or thousands of employees too.
Information overload? ‘Executives are facing the same onslaught of information that most employees are experiencing—only more,’ said a recent report by US office company Steelcase. Modern business requires leaders to multitask like a hyperactive 13 year old with a new phone. There’s a frantic daily barrage of data from which they need to extract information of real value, and a never-ending schedule of meetings that require rapid context-shifting. It’s energy-sapping. ‘Dealing with information that is often sensitive or confidential causes a balancing act for leaders who also need to be accessible and visible,’ Steelcase added.
No time to think? This creates a peculiar conundrum for leaders: they need to spend time with employees, managing by walking around, but they also need time to stop and think. When, exactly? The more senior you get, the more your calendar fills up with meetings, the less able you are to take time off and the more likely your evenings and weekends will be spent chewing on work you couldn’t finish off in the office, or ‘representing the brand’ at events.
Add to all that the pressures of quarterly reporting (if applicable) and the generally weaker workplace support structures for senior leaders (it’s lonely at the top, because unsurprisingly it’s harder to turn to someone for advice when you’re their boss), and it’s little wonder that so many seem to go into semi-retirement by the time they’re 60.
It’s true of course that the people who end up in senior leadership are generally among the most psychologically resilient to the stresses that come with the job – it’s a matter of self-selection. But just because it’s the way it is, doesn’t mean it’s the way it should be. Maybe they’d be even better at their jobs if they weren’t exposed to so much pressure. Maybe other people would be brilliant leaders if only they were able to operate in slightly less intense environments.
But how can you take the pressure off? Having the boss turn up at 11am, potter about for a bit, think for a while, then go home at 3.30pm doesn’t seem like much of a solution. Nor is ‘I don’t do email’ going to cut it in a competitive, connected world.
One solution is to make the working environment and daily grind more pleasant for leaders. A more carefully managed schedule would be a good start, allowing time to think as well as time to talk. ‘For the sake of it’ meetings should not be easy to book.
A more fundamental shift towards employee empowerment may turn out to be the most effective way, however. If workers don’t feel the need to ask their manager to make or validate every decision for them, it not only brings out the best in the employee but also frees the boss from the curse of micromanagement. Then they can focus on bigger things like vision, purpose and inspiration - and have a better time in the process.
It's a virtuous circle, as the more relaxed boss then helps to make everyone else more relaxed. As the old slogan should have said, a happy leader is a productive leader.