Healthy workers, healthy organisation? How a ‘sporty’ vision of leadership can harm wellbeing

A sporty senior leader in a multinational company, promoting a variety of athletic events and competitions to staff, rated employees from green to red to categorise their fitness. Meetings were held with those in the red category to consider how they might alter their lifestyles. 

While the aim was to help employees, as a mother with caring responsibilities writing in the middle of a pandemic and feeling the pressure, I immediately recognised the ethical difficulties in such an approach. 

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Our research was based on data collected before the pandemic, but its results are even more important now. In it we explored how some leaders present themselves as healthy/athletic or sporty, and seek to promote this lifestyle to their employees, linking health with productivity.

A healthy and active lifestyle is increasingly being encouraged in western workplaces. Many leaders may view this movement as a positive one and feel that they are contributing positively through their promotion of sporting activities and gym memberships.

The intention is likely a very good one, and we do not doubt that good can come from this interest in wellbeing and from offering supportive activities. There are also links between a healthy workforce and a more driven and productive workplace that will be of interest to leaders.

The difficulty however is that the leadership style taken by the CEO we studied (Adam), is a one-size-fits-all approach that is inherently masculine in its nature. However well-meaning Adam's intention are, the characteristics of this form of leadership – desire for success, competitiveness, power, and self-reliance – can result in a denial of the lived experiences of employees who may not feel able to engage in the activities promoted or may not want to for a host of perfectly sensible reasons.

Adam also frequently linked health and sporting activity to success at work. He noted that: "Once you lose control of yourself, your body becomes less fit. Similarly, being in control of a professional situation begins with keeping your body under control."

While Adam’s approach is arguably an extreme case, he highlights why adopting only one view of wellbeing is problematic. It fails to address the specific needs of employees and could leave them feeling detached, resentful or simply disengaged.

It serves to disadvantage particular groups such as pregnant women, those with caring responsibilities, the disabled, and LGBTQ+ groups. This then can mean that certain groups become marginalised within organisations, unable or unwilling to partake in the wellbeing norms being promoted and enacted. In our research these employees were thought of as less productive as a result.

I know that for me at the moment taking the time out of my day to enter a sporting competition would be practically impossible and would serve to damage rather than enhance my wellbeing. Such prescriptive approaches can hinder the development of meaningful relationships with employees.

Feminist care ethics is helpful here as it illuminates the value in focusing on enhancing the quality of relationships and the genuine and specific understanding that exists between individuals.

We do not suggest that a CEO should develop meaningful relationships with all their employees, this is clearly impossible. Nevertheless, prescriptive language and actions from a CEO promote a culture in which multiple visions of wellbeing cannot exist. Less prescriptive messaging may well allow line managers to be more responsive, empathetic and understanding. 

Wellbeing means different things to different people and we argue that it is only in appreciating this that meaningful progress can be made towards wellbeing for all. In the midst of the crisis we are all currently immersed in it strikes us as vital to offer a warning. What makes you happy and well may not be the same for someone else.

Being physically fit may indeed by objectively good for you, but there are employees with children at home, with ageing parents to care for, with disabilities, with physical health problems, with mental health problems, and with COVID crushing in on top. They might not have time or energy for a run – is it really so bad if wellbeing to them is watching a good film at the end of the night? 

Michaela Edwards is senior lecturer in human resources and organisational behaviour at Nottingham Business School, with Janet Johansson, senior lecturer, Linköping University