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Leaders are prioritizing well-being over leadership skills in the post-Covid workplace

October 28, 2021 - 8 min read


With Covid-19 caseloads declining across the country, the return to the office movement has picked up considerable steam in the last few weeks.

According to the Wall Street Journal, 36% of the workforce is back in the office — up 5% since Labor Day. Despite the lingering threat posed by a Greek alphabet’s worth of Covid-19 variants popping up around the world, many businesses have already opened their doors or are planning to before the fall season ends.

But the return to “normal” office life is fraught with new risks and challenges today’s leaders will need to step up and address. 

Harvard Business Review reports that nearly half of vaccinated adults are hesitant to return to an in-person office setting. Health concerns, pandemic-related stress and anxiety, and the reluctance to give up the benefits of working from home are just a few of the issues managers are encountering. According to one recent survey, a whopping 95% of people are considering quitting their jobs, leaving company leaders with a potential talent gap to fill in their wake. 

In order to retain talent and keep organizations moving forward, a new kind of leadership — proactive, empathetic, and inclusive — is crucial. And for many, this leadership will be exercised across remote, distributed, and hybrid teams — so even the best leaders need to practice some new skills. Our research has shown that pandemic team performance and happiness hinges on leaders developing strong relationship-building skills. It’s no wonder then that 55% of CEOs say “development of the next generation of leaders” is their top challenge. Clearly, leaders must focus more on their teams and their individual needs than ever before. 

However, data from our 1:1 coaching sessions suggests that leaders have different agendas.

What the data say

Looking at data from tens of thousands of 1:1 coaching sessions with leaders between July 2019 and October 2021, a few things stand out:

  1. Leaders became more focused on coaching for their own well-being at the beginning of the pandemic, and this trend has continued to increase
  2. Leaders have become less focused on coaching for leading others over time, a trend that seems to continue going forward

Does this mean that leaders are becoming more self-centered or that they don’t care as much about leading their people effectively? Not really.

What this data reflects is that leaders are feeling more need to address well-being in their 1:1 coaching sessions. Leaders and managers have been at the forefront since the pandemic started: first protecting their people, then transitioning work, addressing employee well-being, dealing with new work models, uncertain timelines, and the specter of mass resignation. Their well-being has taken a hit and is top-of-mind. 

Why it matters

There's an old saying: “You can't pour from an empty cup.”

The results that come from focusing on self-care are undeniable. McKinsey & Company, the global management consulting firm, discovered that “leaders must first relate to and help themselves before they can do the same for others.” Understanding one’s own feelings and attitudes increases the ability to show empathy to others. And when people feel genuine empathy in the workplace, they’re significantly happier overall.

In fact, the data has shown that managers have a substantial amount of influence on employee happiness, which in turn improves productivity (and profitability). When leaders invest in their own personal well-being, their employees are likely to benefit from numerous positive ripple effects. However, this focus on self comes at the expense of leadership coaching during this critical transitionary period.  

It’s too early to tell how this will pan out, but it leaves open many questions about what this divergence in priorities might mean for organizations in terms of readiness for future leadership challenges posed by a shifting work landscape.

Even if the majority of workers eventually return to the office environment, the pandemic has forever changed what employees and their managers need for themselves and expect from each other. 

While it seems that the worst is behind us, the pandemic, and the questions it has prompted about the future of work, remain. From our perspective, the most successful organizations in the post-Covid world will be those that invest in the quality of their leadership while at the same time provide their employees with the coaching and resources they need to navigate a still uncertain future.


Lead with confidence and authenticity

Develop your leadership and strategic management skills with the help of an expert Coach.

Lead with confidence and authenticity

Develop your leadership and strategic management skills with the help of an expert Coach.

Published October 28, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Dr. Erin Eatough is an occupational health psychologist who has published research on employee well-being in over 30 outlets such as the Journal of Applied Psychology and has been featured in media outlets such as Harvard Business Review. Erin currently serves BetterUp in translating data to insight and helps to bring the science of BetterUp to life through content marketing. Erin received her Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from the University of South Florida.

Before BetterUp, Erin was a professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. She lives in Alexandria, VA with her husband and two young children. When not working, you can find her and her family on adventures in their tiny home on wheels, a converted Sprinter van.

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