Leadership: what does it have to do with workplace wellbeing?

Leadership: what does it have to do with workplace wellbeing?

Leadership: what does it have to do with workplace wellbeing?

Recent findings have highlighted the key role of leadership for workplace wellbeing. According to the CIPD, only 42% of HR professionals it surveyed believed that their senior leadership team encouraged a focus on mental health through their actions and behaviours[1]. As the world of work navigates massive change including the transition to hybrid working and the mental health epidemic[2], leaders, both at senior and team level, have seen a big shift in their role and the skills required in order to be effective in a world of work which is being redefined.

How do leaders manage vastly different perspectives and expectations when it comes to work practices? How do they support team members struggling with their mental health (and how do they know when this is the case?) And importantly, how do leaders protect their own wellbeing and create necessary protective boundaries when the demands placed on them are so overwhelming? I don’t claim to have the definitive answers to these questions; my aim in writing this post is to try to bring some definition and perspective on these questions drawing on social science and leadership theory and what they mean for workplace wellbeing.

How are we defining leadership?

Well, you might say, it’s obvious isn’t it? We are talking about the CEO, about the board members, heads of department, and at a less strategic level, your line managers, and team leaders… those responsible for leading and managing others. Beyond those who embody leadership however, what does the concept itself mean? Leadership is not just about a person’s job title.

For hundreds of years now, multiple theories of leadership have contributed numerous and vastly disparate definitions. Our understanding has evolved considerably since the early ‘Great Man’ theories (the term says it all). We’ve moved away from the idea of leaders being exceptional – invariably male – individuals who were born to lead, to concepts which focus more on the importance of the interaction with ‘followers’ (or in the context of work, team members) and the leader’s own ability to adapt and grow as circumstances change.

If you asked leaders which type of leadership they aspire to today, many would probably reply that they aim to be transformational or authentic leaders, or even ‘servant leaders’. You could say that these popular leadership models all have wellbeing somehow built into their definition.

Three modern leadership approaches and how they relate to wellbeing

Let’s start with transformational leadership, by far the most thoroughly researched of all leadership models. This one is all about inspiring followers to work towards a ‘greater purpose’, beyond their own self-interest. Judge and Piccolo (2004)[3] identified four dimensions to the concept: Inspirational motivation (for which providing meaning is key), Intellectual stimulation, Individualised consideration (the need to consider and aim to meet the needs of team members – very much a theme we are seeing in current management ‘best-practice’ for a hybrid world) and Idealised influence (when leaders’ behaviour is driven by strong values, influencing team members to do the same). The benefits of getting this approach right are higher engagement levels as well as job performance.

Authentic leadership emerged very much as a reaction to the 2008 global financial crisis and a general appetite for moral values, self-awareness, transparency and being true to oneself. What does this form of leadership look like? Walumbwa et al. (2008)[4] described this type of leader’s characteristics as Self-awareness, Relational transparency (e.g. admitting when they have made a mistake), Internalised moral perspective and Balanced processing – in other words ‘fair minded’ and open to others’ viewpoints. Studies (such as Banks et al., 2016[5]) have highlighted the many benefits of this approach for team members. They include lower burnout rates, higher job satisfaction and better relationships between leaders and their teams. Significantly authentic leaders are also likely to inspire more organisational citizenship behaviours, the likelihood of employees ‘going the extra mile’ and feeling committed to their organisation. They inspire more trust and foster positive wellbeing and mental health for employees. Leaders themselves were found to benefit too, showing better mental resilience over time.

Servant leadership is another popular contemporary concept which you could say is closely intertwined with wellbeing. Liden et al. (2008)[6] identified seven dimensions to characterise this type of leader, including Emotional healing or the ability to be empathetic and good at listening, Empowering, meaning the ability to support team members in their work, Helping followers grow and succeed (self-explanatory), Behaving ethically, or communicating in a way that’s open, fair and honest, Putting followers first, and finally Creating value for the community. The leaders who are able to practice this approach with authenticity will create advantages for their organisation such as significant increases in discretionary effort, higher levels of creativity and performance and also job satisfaction above and beyond the previously mentioned forms of leadership.

Linking leadership style with psychosocial risk factors

They may be different fields of occupational psychology, but it doesn’t take a huge leap of interpretation to spot the intersection of leadership theory and wellbeing here. Take for instance the psychosocial risk management model which the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has translated into practical ‘Management Standards’. Each standard represents a category of psychosocial risk factors – in other words, things which cause or increase stress at work. The HSE distils these into 6 key areas:

  • Demands, such as high workload
  • Control, and the pitfalls of not having a sense of ownership at work
  • Support, or lack of input such as feedback
  • Work relationships, whether it’s the impact of bad relationships or a lack of sense of belonging
  • Role, in particular when employees perceive issues of unfairness in the process of recruiting or promoting people
  • Change, and its impact, in particular when employees don’t feel fully informed or kept in the loop

Leadership approaches are undoubtedly one of the key factors influencing outcomes for employees in each of these areas. In fact the CIPD research mentioned previously also highlighted management style as one of the leading causes of stress at work. It makes sense for wellbeing practice to draw on the research findings from the field of leadership for evidence-based approaches to prevent such risk factors. So what are the conclusions for modern leaders looking to promote wellbeing and its benefits?

Top 8 takeaways for leaders

Here are my top eight takeaways, based on a combination of the leadership theories we’ve touched on:

  1. Focus on purpose and meaning, creating clarity around these and communicating them to your team
  2. Cultivate self-awareness, reflecting on how your teams may truly experience your leadership style – being open to feedback and self-reflection or mindfulness practice can all be helpful
  3. Show empathy, practising listening skills and consideration for challenges which employees’ may be going through
  4. Treat team members as individuals; ask them for their preferences and manage them accordingly
  5. Seek to empower, encouraging and supporting team members to explore their potential
  6. Communicate authentically, not being afraid to display emotions and admit to fallibility
  7. Lead with strong values, prioritising ethical and moral approaches to decision making wherever possible
  8. Look after your own wellbeing: leadership can be challenging and self-care is essential to avoid burnout and other negative consequences: sleep, nutrition, exercise, rest, social connections and practices to support mental wellbeing all matter. There is no more powerful way to promote a wellbeing culture than to role model it yourself.


Thinking about supporting your senior leaders and line managers around workplace wellbeing?

Read about our wellbeing leadership training course here. Our popular half-day sessions outline the business case for workplace wellbeing, from risk management to improved performance, as well as practical ways that leaders can promote wellbeing, covering concepts from psychological safety to empathetic communication, in order to ultimately create a culture of wellbeing, engagement and trust.


[1] CIPD Workplace Wellbeing Report 2022:

[2] Office for Health Improvement and Disparities:,to%2021.3%25%20by%20September%202020.

[3] Judge, T. A., & Piccolo, R. F. (2004). Transformational and Transactional Leadership: A Meta-Analytic Test of Their Relative Validity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(5), 755–768.

[4] Walumbwa, F. O., Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., Wernsing, T. S., & Peterson, S. J. (2008). Authentic Leadership: Development and Validation of a Theory-Based Measure†. Journal of Management, 34(1), 89–126.

[5] Banks, G. C., Davis McCauley, K., Gardner, W. L., Guler, C. E. (2016).A meta-analytic review of authentic and transformational leadership: A test for redundancy. The Leadership Quarterly, 27(4), 634-652, ISSN 1048-9843,

[6] Liden, R. C., Wayne, S. J., Zhao, H., & Henderson, D. (2008). Servant Leadership Scale [Database record]. APA PsycTests.


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