“Wellness” is a Leadership Quality

Image from https://www.case.edu/wellness/

Earlier in the year I found myself in front of a couple dozen fellow supervisors from my agency helping to lead a discussion on the importance of “wellness.” I’m still not quite sure why I was up there. It certainly wasn’t because I’m a paragon of wellness practices. I like to think that it wasn’t because I’m a poster child for what happens if you don’t embrace wellness. I suspect that I was there because I do consider wellness to be important and, though my wellness regimen is far less than perfect, at least I try.

Or it could have been because I was the only person to volunteer.

Whatever the reason, there I was, along with another facilitator, standing in front of the class as they tried to answer the question of why our agency should care about wellness in the supervisor ranks. Various answers were suggested by the participants, but all seemed to skirt around the edges of the issue. Finally my exasperated co-facilitator blurted out, “Because dead supervisors are worthless!

Created by Scott Green

Yeah. That’s a good reason.

The Many Dimensions of Wellness

With that very good reason fresh in our minds, we should make sure we understand what we mean by “practicing wellness?” Merriam Webster defines wellness as, “the quality or state of being in good health especially as an actively sought goal.” When we talk about wellness in the broad sense, “health” can have many different aspects. If you do a Google search for “dimensions of wellness” you’ll find many different views on what components make up “wellness.” They seem to range from as few as 3 to as many as 12 dimensions of wellness. 6 to 8 dimensions appear to be the most common, so let’s explore what eight dimensions of wellness might look like.

Image from the University of Maryland
  1. Physical Wellness
    This is probably what we most frequently think of when we talk about wellness. Physical wellness is ensuring a healthy body through exercise, eating well, proper medical care, avoiding risky behaviors and abuse of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.
  2. Emotional Wellness
    How healthy is the way you think about yourself and others? Emotional wellness is a measure of those emotional interactions. It also reflects how resilient you are to stresses in your life and the maturity of knowing when you need help.
  3. Intellectual Wellness
    I tell my kids that their brains are like muscles: you need to exercise and stretch them regularly to keep them strong and growing. Intellectual wellness is about exercising your curiosity and creativity to keep growing. It’s also about maintaining a healthy mindset that allows for critical and objective reasoning while still remaining open to new ideas and differing points of view.
  4. Vocational (or Occupational) Wellness
    We spend a lot of time in school preparing for the professional world and, once we’re out in the “real” world, we spend a big chunk of our lives in the workplace. That work needs to feed us in more ways than just putting bread on the table! Vocational wellness speaks to the satisfaction and enrichment we get from our careers as well as how we actively participate in setting career goals and aspirations.
  5. Social Wellness
    It’s hard for most people to be healthy in isolation. Social Wellness speaks to the healthy connections we have with others in our communities. Just as a healthy diet needs to be varied to ensure we get the necessary nutrients, healthy social connections should be diverse and also allow each of us to express our own diversity in safe and inclusive ways.
  6. Spiritual Wellness
    Why are we here? What’s our purpose in life? What are the values and beliefs that feed us? Those are the kinds of questions addressed by Spiritual Wellness. While organized religion can play a role in this aspect of wellness, Spiritual Wellness speaks more broadly to how we see ourselves connected to the people and world around and beyond us.
  7. Environmental Wellness
    Understanding how we connect with and influence the environments around us is reflected in this dimension of wellness. It’s difficult to be truly healthy if the environment around us is toxic. Environmental Wellness looks at not just our natural environment, but also our social environment, and the physical environment of the neighborhoods in which we live.
  8. Financial Wellness
    A healthy relationship with money, stable finances, and living within our means are also important to an overall feeling of wellness. This dimension of wellness not only deals with how we care for our finances, but also an awareness that everyone’s financial situations and needs are unique.

From the list above you can see that there’s some overlap in these dimensions and that these dimensions of wellness can be interconnected. Imbalance in one dimension can result in imbalance in others. Those imbalances can quickly turn into issues with our physical and mental health resulting in an overall deterioration of our quality of life.

There’s no perfect balance of these dimensions as our needs shift over time. At certain points in our lives we may need to focus more on some of these dimension than others. Part of wellness is an understanding of where we may need to center our focus at certain times and an awareness of the dynamic nature of our needs and how we tend to them.

Wellness as a Leadership Characteristic

Clearly an attention to our personal wellness is important. But why is wellness a critical leadership quality? Because the wellness practices of a leader influence the way they lead and affect those they lead in two important ways:

First, leaders can sometimes find themselves so focused on those they lead, that they neglect themselves or, at the very least, put self-care low on their list of priorities. It’s easy to see self-care as self-ish rather than something that should be a priority. However, neglecting your personal wellness doesn’t serve anyone. When you’re “out of balance,” at best you’re not operating at peak efficiency. For example, if you’re distracted by physical or mental health issues it can be hard to focus or to prioritize tasks. You may not be able to listen well or use your best judgement in decision making. For a leader, those are all critical skills that directly impact their team members.

And that’s at best. At worst, well…worthless supervisor.

Image from DeskTime.com

But as a leader there’s a second dimension to your wellness practices that you need to consider. For better or for worse, leaders model behavior for the people they lead. If you’re frequently working late or on the weekends, not taking vacation time, working through lunch, or firing off emails to your team at midnight, you may be sending the message that you’re expecting the same behavior from them. The result could be that you’re inadvertently telling your team to neglect their own wellness.

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask Before Helping Those Around You

As described above, neglecting your own wellness damages both you and the people you’re trying to lead. The advice we’re given by fight attendants during the pre-flight safety instructions to put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you, is actually pretty profound. The consequences of not helping yourself first before helping others can be catastrophic.

Image from Bill Menker

Knowing this doesn’t necessarily make it easy to do. Many people are in leadership positions because they feel called to help the people on their team. It can be difficult for a leader to reconcile their duty to see to the needs of those they lead with the duty they have to their own well being.

I Can’t Run But I Can Walk Much Faster Than This

Another challenge that we all face as we strive for “wellness” is when we try to live up to unobtainable ideals of what we think wellness looks like. We imagine all those healthy, happy, and well adjusted people around us who seem to always have time for a workout, eat only healthy meals, and never have a sick day, and we think, “there’s no way I can do that. Why bother?” Or, if we have a wellness regimen and “fall off the wagon” we see that as proof of our inadequacy. That time we had a Twinkie and coffee for breakfast is just another sign that we’ll never achieve our wellness ideal.

The thing is, we’ll likely never reach that wellness ideal and it’s counterproductive to stress over it. Life frequently gets in the way of “ideal.” There’s a line from a Paul Simon song that goes “I can’t run but I can walk much faster than this.” I think about that line when I find myself not living up to my own impossible standards. To me those lyrics testify to the fact that while we may not be perfect, we can always do better. That’s a healthy way to look at Wellness. And if you think about it from the viewpoint of leadership, being a leader is not about perfecting people, but rather helping them to continue to become better. We need to apply that same grace to ourselves as leaders.

I’m still not a paragon of Wellness, and I don’t think I ever will be. That’s OK, though. Maybe I can’t run, but I can walk much faster than this. And walking is an excellent wellness practice!


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