Team Well-Being - Lessons from a Heart Attack. A Personal Story
Well-being is a huge and vitally important aspect of team and individual performance that, I am glad to say, is starting to be seriously addressed by organisations. Thankfully, the major impact that well-being has in terms of overall organisational productivity is now being understood, and while it has always been recognised that both physical and mental illness have a serious negative impact on productivity, the vast extent of this lack of well-being is now being seriously measured. We now know that the loss of revenue caused by employees having to take time off work due to physical and mental ill-health (and with the negative ‘ripple effect’ on remaining employees) is seriously quite staggering. Are organisations really doing enough though?
Let me relate a personal story. On October 28th, 2016 (the day after my 56th birthday) I had a heart attack whilst recovering in the local health club changing room after an hour’s fairly intense gym session. To cut a long story short, the ambulance was in attendance after 15 minutes, and 38 minutes later (after a blue light high-speed dash!) I was in the cath lab of our local heart centre. Two major arterial blockages removed, and two stents later I was sitting up in the hospital bed wondering why it had happened to me, someone who had a positive outlook on life, was pretty fit for my 56 years, and in pretty good physical shape. It was only on reflection, and in discussion with the consultant and rehab nurse, that it was agreed that there were probably three causes: genetics due to family history, a not so great diet of constant hotel food due to my travels as a manager, and increased stress due to lengthy work days, constant travel and an excessive workload covering a large team with challenging targets. I was lucky in many respects. I had a good working relationship with my manager, the overall company culture was good and whilst I had a large team to manage most of the team members were excellent performers. Overall, we were doing well. However, at what cost? It wasn’t just myself in the team who was under stress, and whilst this manifested itself personally in a heart attack, I don’t think, as a manager, I had ever encountered so many members of a team who were also experiencing high levels of stress. There were traumatic divorces, personal and close family illnesses and immediate family bereavements all occurring at some point during the ‘life cycle’ of the team. Whilst most of the team were ‘open’ with me, and I was able to listen to their challenges and personal situations, I was stuck between concern for the team member’s welfare, offering support and personal confidentiality. Many team members didn’t want senior management to be aware of their challenges as at the time many people in the company were concerned about possible downsizing and thus possibly losing their job. I was also not a trained counsellor, and whilst my instinct and desire was to play the counsellor, my skills did not go beyond coaching and as such I could have done more ‘damage’ than my intentions warranted if I had played the 'amateur' counsellor. Pleas for some members to take up the company’s excellent Employee Assistance Service were ignored such was the suspicion that the company may find out their personal situations, and with some team members, the stigma of being counselled, was not something the team member wanted to be associated with. People were prepared, sadly, to suffer in silence albeit sharing their challenges with myself did relieve some of the pressure. This though wasn't enough - by far.
On reading this, you may think that this was quite an awful place to work but the opposite was actually the case in most respects. On the surface, senior management looking in would have seen a successful team overall with very low rates of employee turnover and a decent performance record and attendance but like the proverbial ‘iceberg’ the levels of stress were hidden from general view. My heart attack was probably the ‘tip’ of this iceberg. As it turned out company restructures and then a downsizing meant that I moved on as did many members of the original team but looking back there are many personal lessons that I learned from the 'heart-attack' experience. I hope these lessons will assist you in your role as a team manager.
1. Most companies will have an employee assistance service available. It is important that this service is fully understood in terms of its benefits and accessibility and both the company and team managers have to make sure that everyone is fully aware of the service, the benefits that it can bring, it is truly confidential, and the fact there is no stigma to using it. It is there for a very powerful reason. It does though have to be continually promoted and not just an after-thought in an HR Induction document.
2. All managers should have regular training in well-being practices and have their own well-being and resilience routinely assessed. We all have personal work objectives and personal development plans documented so why not a well-being and resilience plan that is supported and followed through with continual review?
3. All levels of manager should have excellent coaching skills and within this be able to contract effectively as to how best they are going to work with each individual team member and the team as a whole. Whilst I contracted in a general sense, I probably ‘skirted’ over the issue as to what is communicated when someone is suffering stress due to illness and / or personal circumstances. I like to think that I built psychological safety in the teams that I was leading but did I do enough to fully contract with team members and also with my senior line managers, especially in the areas of ‘stress-identification’ and confidentiality?
4. Team Managers should always lead by example, although in this instance I’m not sure I did! I had a strong work effect and through this, I felt I was leading by example. It was interesting, though, that several team members confided in me when I returned to work that they had noticed my increasing levels of tiredness and on occasion ‘irritability’ but they felt that they didn’t feel comfortable to mention it to me as they felt it was just down to the excesses of the job and the travel associated with it. They didn’t equate it to increasing levels of stress – they just simply saw it as decreasing levels of energy due to the effort I was putting into the job. Maybe there is a case for ensuring all employees have the same level of well-being training as managers so that they are in a position to fully recognise excessive stress?
5. Team Managers have to be vulnerable. I liked to think that if I was having challenges in the workplace, especially with respect to my work objectives, I would be open and upfront and highlight these challenges to both my manager and the team. However, I wasn’t as upfront as regards the stresses and strains I was under, and I would simply work harder to attempt to get a better result which would (supposedly) minimise the actual stresses and strains. Wrong strategy! I would advise all team managers to be ‘truly’ vulnerable and be open about what is not going so well from a work objectives perspective but also to be up front as regards when their mental and physical well-being is being compromised. If the team is a true high-performance team and has strong trust throughout all the membership then the team will rally round to support any team member who is struggling, including the team manager.
6. Many organisations now have designated and trained ‘Mental Health Aiders’ which is a good move. Does your individual team have one? Something to consider.
Team Managers can do a lot to support the well-being of the team they are leading but they have to make sure that they, themselves, are getting supported by the organisation and their own line manager. Well-being has to be taken seriously at all levels of the organisation and where organisations are putting in place assistance programmes and ‘mental health first-aiders’ then they still have to make sure that regular, monitoring, assessments and training are put in place and that these become the ‘norm.’ There can be no 'tick-box' exercises when it comes to employee and team well-being.
There are a number of very cost-effective Team Manager developmental and support resources now available to support you in your quest to truly be that ‘Successful Team Manager.’ You can view and access these at:
The PARTNERS Team Development online Team Assessment – Allows the team to feedback on strengths and development areas and gets them discussing their development towards high performance https://www.partnersteamdevelopment.com/onlineassessment
The PARTNERS ‘Action Plan’ for Team Managers – A DIY Guide to getting your team performing. https://www.partnersteamdevelopment.com/product-page/partners-team-manager-action-plan
The book, ‘Team Champion - Taking Teamwork Seriously” - https://www.partnersteamdevelopment.com/teamchampion
The Online PARTNERS Team Development Course – A healthy blend of video lectures and questions to get you thinking. https://www.partnersteamdevelopment.com/online
If you are looking to develop your teams directly then contact me through LinkedIn or via email at email@example.com Alternatively call me on ++ 44 (0) 776 416 8989.