Leaders need to get real: why the real wellbeing work is in the everyday interactions

Petra black and white (1)

Petra Velzeboer, Mental Health Consultant, CEO, Psychotherapist and regular Make A Difference Speaker, talks to us about leadership-for-wellbeing on publication of her book, Begin With You.

“Words are empty if they’re not backed up with action.

And action is not just your high-level board meetings, awareness days or team announcements. You know, the ‘big’ stuff.

The real wellbeing work is in the daily interactions that we have, either one to one, or within our teams.

How do you use daily interactions for wellbeing?

For example, we use the first 10-15 minutes of our team meetings to foster a sense of belonging and connection.

This can be playful or deep, but it’s a time to get to know each other as humans. We rotate who leads this exercise so it isn’t always me and it could be a simple question like:

‘What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing at the moment?’


‘What’s your favourite holiday destination or bucket list goal?’

Now, I know anecdotally that there are businesses who check-in with a green light system, or score themselves on a number, and every company is different so try what works for you.

Enhance REAL connection at work

Personally, I see scoring work better with high male demographics as I find it impossible to capture all the nuances of how I might be feeling about work and life in a simple number score – but that doesn’t make it wrong – it just means it’s not a one size fits all.

The aim is simply to enhance real connection at work.

This generally only happens if the leader really shows up as themselves.

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Things you can say to your team

When I was starting off these conversations at the beginning, I would say something like:

‘What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing? And I’m happy to start…’

Then I’d say something like ‘my kids are home from school which makes working harder’ or ‘my PTSD is acting up’. But it would be something real because that sets the tone, and gives permission for others to show up too.

Another way I might lead by example is talking about the resources I use to help manage workplace pressures. For example, I might talk about going to the gym to help me manage a particularly stressful task I’ve got coming up. 

Lead by example, your team will follow

We’ve now started to take turns with who leads the exercise by asking a question. It’s no longer always me starting it, but it’s important the leader leads by example at the start because it gives people permission to do the same.

Creating these psychologically safe atmospheres is not about the passage of time inevitably leading to it. It’s about: how far are you willing to go as a leader to kick it off?

If you only dip your toes in, your employees will only dip their toes in, and it will take much, much longer to create that atmosphere. By toe-dipping I mean if your idea of a ‘check in’ is simply ‘how was your weekend?’ (For more on creating psychological safety, see this article here).

It’s not sharing circles and campfires

That’s not to say that I’m advocating sitting around in sharing circles with a guitar and a campfire, howling and talking about the details of our childhood trauma. We have work to do. Obviously. But because we spend time fostering our connections, that means when the sh*t hits the fan, and someone is struggling, we can support each other to do the work because we know each other.

We own our triggers and the fact they can affect our work.

Do you know how to react when someone says they’re struggling?

We also know how to react when one of us says we’re struggling. Many leaders don’t; they go to the effort of creating a psychologically safe space, where they encourage their team to speak up but, when someone does, they undo much of their good work.

Imagine a star performer has admitted they’re struggling with anxiety or depression. Usually, unconscious bias then steps in. A leader’s voice changes and adopts a pitying tone. He or she suddenly starts acting like the employee’s skill has magically disappeared, and that they’re no longer good at their job and can’t be trusted to deliver.

This is what I do when a team member is struggling

That’s not what I do. We attract people who struggle with their mental health, because of the business we’re in, so I have plenty of experience of this situation.

Generally, I’ve learnt the best thing to do is say something like:

‘I know you’ve got this big presentation coming up. Do you need any back up? How are you feeling about it?’

They might say: ‘I got it, I want to do it. But I might need a bit of recovery time afterwards.’

Empower them to find solutions

Basically, ask them what they need in order to get their job done to the standard you know that they’re capable of. This empowers personal solutions and helps us as leaders support our employees without patronising them, or assuming they can no longer do their jobs.

If they can really no longer do their job, then that is likely to be the result of months or years of build-up and not being effectively supported by leadership.

Now they are no longer capable because they are burnt out. And a wellbeing webinar on burn out is not going to fix that.

This is the biggest trap leaders fall into…

The biggest trap a leader can fall into is making assumptions. In the tragic stories of suicide, the people who struggled are often described as ‘the life and soul of the party’, so you need to constantly challenge the assumptions of what ‘good’ looks like and check-in genuinely with people, as a matter of course.

If I had one overriding message for leaders it would be to shift the entire wellbeing narrative to talking about how to help people thrive, rather than the crisis-driven models that are still so prevalent. The pitying, illness-focused approach to wellbeing isn’t going to change culture.

Changing culture around wellbeing

What will?

Shining a light on wellness. Brave conversations. Being the first to show up, even if you’re the only one that does. That’s the fire I want to see in the belly of more businesses.”

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