By Corporate English Solutions

11 September 2023 - 15:31

The power of authentic leadership in fostering workplace wellbeing

In today's post-pandemic landscape, where just 24% of employees believe their organisation prioritises wellbeing, organisations need to rethink their approach. Leaders significantly influence employee wellbeing through culture, policies, and practices. How can they foster this and set the tone for employee interactions? 

Explore how leaders can enhance wellbeing by embracing authenticity, empathy, and connection, empowering teams, encouraging wellbeing dialogue, and ultimately fostering a healthier workplace.


Reading time: 6 minutes

The pandemic reshaped the landscape of work, leaving a profound impact on overall wellbeing. Some leaders made life-altering decisions during this challenging period, affecting not only themselves but also their teams. 

More on this later.

Then and now: Why workplace wellbeing (still) matters

For many organisations, the global pandemic was a wake-up call – highlighting the urgent need to prioritise their employees’ wellbeing. Many dedicated extra resources to support the physical, mental and emotional health of their employees. 

Fast forward to today, wellbeing is still a top priority. And rightly so. In Gallup’s recent global workplace study, only 24% of employees strongly agree that their organisation cares about their overall wellbeing. This is a significant drop from the 49% reported in 2020. 

When employees feel their organisations don’t care about their wellbeing, engagement, productivity and performance suffers. And this leads to poor workplace wellbeing, which increases stress, burnout and turnover costs. 

How do leaders impact workplace wellbeing?

Research shows that direct managers have a huge influence on employees’ health and wellbeing (3). It makes sense, as leaders shape organisational culture – setting the tone for employee interactions and policies that affect mental health. 

What can leaders do to promote greater workplace wellbeing? Embrace empathy and authenticity (they go well together). 

What is authentic leadership? And why is it important for workplace wellbeing?

Authentic leadership is not a new concept. Bill George, who literally wrote the book on authentic leadership 20 years ago, recently defined it simply:

‘Being an authentic leader is being who you are.’ 

Underscoring this simple definition is the fact that authentic leadership is not style you easily learn. It depends on developing self-awareness, embracing vulnerability, showing empathy and leading with integrity. An authentic leader knows how to build trust, foster open communication and nurture connections.

Authentic leadership contributes to a positive work environment. And there’s research to back up its significant impact on engagement and job satisfaction, which both positively impact mental health and wellbeing.

Ready to explore some inspiring examples of authentic leadership in action? 

Read on to find out more about its powerful impact and the positive effect it has on workplace wellbeing.

1. Cultivating trust through empathy 

Authentic leaders are not afraid to show empathy in the workplace.

It’s this willingness to show empathy that sets them apart from traditional leaders. And fosters a culture of trust – encouraging others to feel safe revealing their vulnerabilities. 

In the early days of the pandemic, Kai – a seasoned sales leader – could not do what he typically did: put on a brave face. Like many in his team, he was adjusting to working from home while managing childcare and family responsibilities. Then, there was the fear. Afraid for his partner’s health, a nurse in intensive care and fear for his elderly parents.

In one of the team’s early bi-weekly video meetings, Lara, a team member with three young children, shared her concerns about home schooling. She was even re-considering her future at the company. 

Then there was silence. Kai felt everyone was waiting for him to speak, to convince Lara to stay. But he made room for the silence – another key trait of an authentic leader. He listened, allowing other team members to share their anxieties then 

Then it was Kai’s turn to speak. He didn’t try to ‘fix’ his teams’ problems (like he was known to do). Instead, he empathised and shared his own worries about his wife’s job. And how he’s become the primary caretaker of their two children while she works long shifts at the hospital.

By showing empathy, listening and being open about his own challenges, Kai inspired others in his team to feel safe to share their feelings. It was not long after that others opened up about the wellbeing challenges they were facing.

2. Nurturing connection and openness 

Authentic leaders actively cultivate relationships and encourage transparency among team members.

First, it started out of necessity in the first few weeks of working remotely. Erin, a senior product manager, introduced wellbeing check-ins during the early days of online meetings. But today, it’s a permanent fixture of every team meeting. 

The wellbeing check-ins have transformed the entire dynamic of her diverse team of engineers, UX designers and marketing specialists. The ritual began with a simple, ‘How are you?’ then evolved into wellbeing conversations and self-care practices

One week, Erin shared a simple breathing exercise she learned years ago at a leadership retreat. It was so straightforward, she hesitated to share it. But others found it useful not only for stressful times at work but also in their personal lives. It was not too long after that another team member Lucas, also a yoga instructor, started leading online meditation sessions. It grew so popular that other departments joined in.

One simple act of encouraging wellbeing conversations and practices made it clear that that actively engaging in self-care was a sign of strength. Not weakness. Beyond exchanging wellbeing tips, this approach deepened a sense of belonging in a team known for its relentless pursuit of project targets and deliverables. And the fact that this practice continues post-pandemic helps the team know that their wellbeing still matters.

3. Creating a safe and empowering space

Authentic leaders develop the ability to create environments where others feel safe to be themselves. 

It was a moment of reckoning for Ali’s IT team: the hybrid return to the office. The transition was not as bad as some team members feared. During the first all-team meeting back in the office, Ali shared the reasons for his recent one-month leave. To handle feelings of burnout, he decided to get support from a counsellor.

Ali’s openness about his struggles did not go unnoticed. He was visibly uncomfortable but continued speaking anyway. He also took the moment to remind everyone about the company’s mental health benefits, which included 12 counselling sessions a year and access to the Employee Assistance Programme.

Weeks after Ali shared his counselling journey, its impact rippled through the team. 

Leaders who set the example that seeking help is a positive step towards self-care and growth empower other employees to do the same. Particularly those who may hesitate to talk about mental health in the workplace. It creates a safe space for team members to share their experiences without fear of being judged.

4. Supporting mental and emotional health in the workplace

Authentic leaders can have a profound impact on mental and emotional health in the workplace. Especially when they proactively address stress-management. 

The tendency to overwork, especially when working from home, was pushing Cleo’s team of financial analysts over the edge. With two team members currently on medical leave for burnout, Cleo knew she had to do something. 

But first she had to admit something to her high-achieving team. Her own feelings of having to be always ‘on’ – even on weekends – was taking its toll on her work and family life. So much so her own manager recommended coaching sessions on managing stress.

During the team’s weekly-check-in, she shared helpful stress-reduction strategies that she was learning in her coaching sessions. She also asked another team member, known for his knowledge of the latest wellbeing apps, to do a demo session. 

And since her team was now part hybrid and remote, Cleo made sure that all office team meetings were accessible by video. Another key factor in improving the sense of loneliness, isolation and lack of belonging remote workers feel. Being open about self-care demonstrates how critical it is to sustainable productivity and overall wellbeing. 

Cleo’s encouraging of others to share their personal experiences and practices highlights another common trait of authentic leadership. The willingness to listen and learn from others – recognising that they don’t have all the answers. This acknowledgment also supports the leadership potential of everyone in a team.

Embracing an authentic leadership approach 

These real-world efforts toward a more authentic leadership approach show how vital it is to nurturing health and wellbeing in the workplace. Embracing empathy, fostering connections, creating safe spaces, and supporting workplace wellbeing contribute to an empowered, resilient workforce. In an increasingly uncertain post-pandemic business landscape, every organisation needs to prioritise developing this transformative leadership approach. 

What steps will you and your organisation take?

British Council has been supporting organisations worldwide to identify and develop skills to ensure talent is equipped for success now and in future. Partner with us to upskill your workforce and support their wellbeing, through courses in Time and Stress Management, Leading Global Teams and Emotional Intelligence. These crucial skills will prepare your team for success in 2023 and beyond.