Leaders still afraid to show vulnerability and ill-health

A prevailing ‘stiff upper lip attitude’ creates barriers to conversations about wellbeing at the executive level

The majority of business leaders are afraid to show vulnerability or ill health, research from Bupa UK has found.

Its research, based on interviews with 300 business leaders, found that three-fifths (62%) think they need to show that they don’t suffer from ill health, and half (50%) think it isn’t possible to be both a good leader and vulnerable.

Seven in 10 leaders (68%) also noted a ‘stiff upper lip attitude’ that creates barriers to conversations about wellbeing at the executive level.

Cary Cooper, 50th anniversary professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester’s business school, told HR magazine that this trend persists “because the stereotype leaders have of their own role is they should manage stress well, that they can cope with pressure. What leaders are ‘supposed to do’ is absorb pressure and make rational decisions.”

He added though that “the pressures in today’s business world are unrelenting and from time to time people just can’t cope.”

The danger of a ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude is that leaders avoid seeking assistance, and then are off sick for a much longer period when they eventually buckle than they would have been otherwise.

Cooper added that this attitude sends a harmful signal to the rest of the workforce. “HR has a really critical role in working with occupational health to get rid of this stigma, because if we don’t it will trickle all the way down and we’ll have a massive presenteeism issue – where people turn up to work but are too ill to actually contribute."

HR’s role should be to spot the signs a leader might be suffering from ill health, particularly mental ill health, and point out that the business “won’t go broke” because the leader is off sick for a while.

“Very senior leaders don’t want to exude vulnerability or talk about ill health because of fears around how analysts will treat their company,” he said. He said HR should point out inspiring examples such as Lloyds boss António Horta-Osório admitting mental ill health, and how the business wasn’t negatively affected as a result.

Regarding HR spotting the signs of mental ill health, Cooper stated: “The signs are not complicated. People who are usually decisive no longer are; people who are usually very sociable become withdrawn…”

Professor of economics at London Business School Andrew Scott added that a ‘stiff upper lip', resilience-at-all-costs leadership approach will no longer work in light of changing working patterns.

“With growing longevity people will need to work for longer. As life extends our careers go from being a 10km race to a 15km race. We need to change the pace at which we approach them and use different tactics if we are to remain motivated, productive and capable,” he told HR magazine.

“Giving people the space to reinvest in their skills, health and knowledge will be increasingly important for firms as they try to attract good talent and retain their best people,” he added. “Not doing so but demanding more and more will be bad for individuals' long-term careers and health and will be short-termist for firms too.”

The Bupa UK research also found that 91% of business leaders agree that technology will continue to affect the wellbeing of their workforce over the next decade. It revealed 71% think the standard 9am to 5pm working day is a thing of the past, and 94% believe there will be significant change in the employer-employee relationship in the next 10 years.