The Wellbeing Gap, and How Leaders Can Bridge It

by | Jul 28, 2023 | Health and Wellbeing, Organizational Health

There’s a gap in what leaders see as their role in wellbeing, and in their actual responsibility to their employees and organization.  

Consider this example.  

Have you ever had a manager who tells you “Don’t work at night,” then emails you 20 times between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. the next morning? Have you worked for someone who touts the benefits of disconnecting, then calls you on vacation because there’s an issue only you can handle? Has a leader told you “Take care of yourself,” while also assigning last-minute projects that require you to work through lunch, stay late, and push aside other priorities?  

These leaders create no-win situations for their team members. When they say “Don’t work at night,” their employee must choose between safeguarding personal time by following their leader’s words, or, more likely, doing the work and sacrificing their time anyway.  

For the employee, it can often feel like lip-service. The leader has checked off their responsibility toward wellbeing, so if the employee has to work late to get things done, it’s the employee’s issue. They’re telling employees to advocate for themselves when they really want employees to figure things out and keep them out of it.  

I’m not placing all the blame on the leader. While we know there are leaders who encourage behaviors that they directly violate, most leaders are trying. In most of these cases, leaders really do WANT to mean what they say.  

They want their people to be healthy and engaged. However, they’re not connecting the dots between their actions and their team’s level of engagement and energy.  


What’s the Real Issue?  

Leaders aren’t trained to consider wellbeing a critical component of their organization’s success. Instead, they’re trained to focus on results.  

If they get results from their people, it’s good for everyone, right? People keep their jobs. High-performers get promoted or earn raises. But there’s a gap here – the wellbeing gap — that can have a severe effect on a team/organization’s ability to perform long-term.  


What is the Wellbeing Gap?  

The wellbeing gap is a fundamental misunderstanding of wellbeing’s impact on an organization’s performance, endurance, and success.  

With a wellbeing gap, leaders tend to think about issues of fatigue, burnout, disengagement, and exhaustion as “you” problems. In even well-meaning cultures, there’s a misapprehension that team members are responsible for themselves and any issues are related to something an individual did wrong (they just didn’t have enough drive, enough resilience, etc.), rather than systemic/cultural issues within the organization.  

Organizations with a wellbeing gap lack understanding in several key areas:  

  • A lack of understanding about the relationship between capacity and competence. We call this the performance equation. To be able to perform sustainably, people need both the competence (the skills you hired them for) and the capacity to use them (the bandwidth and energy to put those skills to work).  
  • A lack of understanding regarding the relationship between high performance and recovery. No one can perform at a high level indefinitely. When you downshift, you have the choice to lean into recovery or to move toward burnout. If you focus on recovery, you’ll be able to get back to performing more quickly than if you continue to push yourself in a survival state.  
  • A lack of cultural adoption. As long as wellbeing is siloed and considered solely a responsibility of HR, organizations will struggle to build consistent, widely adopted wellbeing efforts.  
  • A lack of systemic support for team members. When teams are not aligned around energy norms, some frustrating things happen. Some team members avoid asking for help, which wears them down and affects morale. Others take on too much work and become frustrated and burned out. Leaders need a clear understanding of what’s affecting their teams so they can create new norms and ensure people feel supported.  


How Leaders and Organizations Can Close the Gap  

Dialed-in leaders recognize the value of wellbeing on its own. However, when you consider the business cost of the wellbeing gap, managing and closing it becomes even more critical to team and organizational success.  

There are direct business costs when you wear down and burn out your people. For example, attrition is costly and can drain an organization of both institutional knowledge and employee motivation as the remaining team members see their plates get fuller.  Some of the top reasons employees leave organizations include unsustainable work expectations and uncaring, uninspired leaders. Leaders who leave their team members believing wellbeing is an individual responsibility or that wellbeing challenges are a personal failing fall into that category.  

Instead, leaders can close the wellbeing gap by focusing on creating an energy-inspired workplace. Here’s how to get started:  

  • Understand energy as the biggest differentiator in performance. It’s as simple as that. If you want the best people doing the best work, ensure they’re properly fueled. When they’re not running on energy, they have less ability to strategize, create, and innovate. You know they’re capable. Imagine what they could do if you support their energy needs and empower them to do their best work.  
  • Build trust and lead well. I like to say that recovery is a team sport. Bridging the wellbeing gap is too. Your team members need your active support and a trusting environment to fully participate in high performance and in recovery. Lead by example. 
  • Advocate for your team. We talk often about making work winnable for our people. While you might not be able to change your entire corporate culture, you can give your people the support they need to make small wellbeing shifts and turn them into bigger energy-inspired actions over time.  

If you are treating your wellbeing efforts as a sideshow to business imperatives, you are already playing from behind. Wellbeing is readiness. Considering wellbeing a business imperative ensures you have the right people powered up and ready to go when you need them most, and creates a mindset shift so you can build the best environment for your people and access the best of them in return.  

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