Psychological wellbeing and leadership in the time of Covid-19

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In recent decades, researchers have been able to observe leaders across the globe as they dealt with economic crises, nuclear disasters, oil spills, massive business failures and other large-scale calamities. Data collected by business schools, universities and employers suggest that the behaviour of leaders has a considerable impact on both employees’ wellbeing and their performance.

Leaders facing trying circumstances often focus heavily on demonstrating their competence. They focus on gathering the best financial and economic data and analysing it in order to create a plan of action. They communicate their aims and then drive employees and their organisations towards their goals.

Studies strongly suggest, however, that employees respond not just to displays of competence but also to demonstrations of benevolence. In fact, research first conducted by scientists led by Susan Fiske at Princeton University in the US suggests that all humans – not just employees – respond universally to warmth, compassion and the sense that others genuinely care.

So, as a leader, do not focus only on the rational parts of the projects and challenges before you. Accept that your people are human beings who may be anxious, sad or scared. In your communications, aim to get away from the business jargon to communicate your concern for them. Be willing to show your human side – maybe even to share to a degree your worries and feelings.

Many leaders believe they must appear strong; in fact, research tells us that employees often respond more positively to leaders they see as vulnerable and authentic.

Effective leaders also deliberately seek out opposing viewpoints. It can be easy to surround yourself, perhaps inadvertently, with advisers who have similar backgrounds, sets of values and attitudes to you. But the key to putting together robust plans is to seek dissent – to look for the holes in your arguments and weak spots in your proposals.


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Finally, effective leaders tend to ask others for feedback on their own effectiveness as leaders, so be sure to seek constructive criticism from people around you on how you are perceived. Yes, you may be doing a good job – but in what ways could you alter your style to do even better? Are you coming across as both competent and benevolent?

One trap that leaders may fall into is to seek feedback only from a limited pool of advisers who may offer mainly positive feedback. If you truly wish to improve your effectiveness in difficult times, ask for comments from those who are prepared to point out your flaws.

Whether you manage others or not, make a conscious effort to look after your own mental health. Psychologists distinguish between unproductive worry and productive worry. For example, simply worrying, speculating on what horrors could befall you would be considered unproductive worry. So would spending hours scrolling through social media reading posts and stories from sources of questionable reputation. Dwelling for too long on things you cannot influence is also considered unproductive.

In contrast, productive worry is more about analysing a situation, identifying problems and solving them. That might entail researching the parts of the situation that you can affect, having constructive conversations with others, writing down actions and then following through on them.

When you have worried productively and done all you can, it’s a good idea to immerse yourself in other activities: do something fun or find a small project to develop your skills and knowledge. Even better, help others: research shows that demonstrating kindness to others is one of the best ways to boost our own psychological wellbeing.

Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace

This article was first published in the May 2020 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine

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