There’s one simple (but significant) thing that’s undermining your wellbeing efforts at work

Wellbeing at work is a hot topic right now – and rightly so. It’s estimated that 1 million workers are absent every day globally due to stress, causing losses for larger companies of more than US$3.5 million per company, per year. The good news is that most organisations are waking up to the fact that wellbeing at work is something that deserves our attention.

But I’m seeing a growing trend that’s makes me nervous.

I’ve seen a proliferation of mindfulness exercises and resilience courses, yoga classes and tips for employees on what they need to do to avoid burnout. None of these are bad initiatives.  

But when it comes to wellbeing at work, they should be the icing on the cake. Not the cake itself. On their own, they simply won’t cut it. I see far too many organisations ‘fluffing around the edges’ with wellbeing. They’re putting in initiatives that tick the boxes, but leaders are avoiding tackling the biggest levers when it comes to wellbeing at work.   

Amidst all the wellbeing buzz and banter, what can you do as a leader to put the focus on wellbeing?

Get better at prioritising and organising work. This is especially important for the executive team because you have the most power to influence this. But every leader can do their part. While there’s no single silver bullet that guarantees wellbeing at work, prioritisation and how we organise workload packs a big punch when it comes to preventing burnout and improving the wellbeing of our employees.

How we prioritise what gets done in our organisation creates a massive lever on employee activity – what they do, the quality of their work, how many hours they work and even the relationship they have towards their work, their colleagues and the organisation itself.

Here are 7 ways to bring this strategy to life in your organisation:

  1. Focus on only 3-5 strategic priorities

If everything is a priority, then nothing is. Having 10 or 20 priorities is a total oxymoron, yet you’d be surprised to know how often I see this. Not only are that many priorities totally ineffective, they’re a recipe for burnout – overwork is one of the six causes.

Many leaders underestimate the flow-on effect of a significant new project, strategic shift or major organisational initiative on their people’s existing workloads. It seems eye-wateringly obvious, but we need to stop trying to do too much all at once.

Instead, have 3 to 5 strategic pillars and no more. Then use these pillars to help you and your team prioritise work. Does this new suggestion, or exciting-looking project fit under one of those strategic pillars? If it doesn’t, don’t do it. Resist the allure of the “kinda interesting”.

  1. Make a to-don’t list

We’re all familiar with the to-do list. Less so, the ‘to-don’t’ list. Connected with the idea above, leaders need to start looking at what their organisations can ditch or delay. You and your team simply can’t do it all – especially not right now. So, go back to the strategic priorities and resist any ideas or initiatives that don’t match up. Regularly assess what you and your team can take out of the work funnel that’s not helping you move towards your key collective goals. Defer or delete the mildly important.

A to-don’t list is powerful – and freeing. But you might also need a ‘look at later’ list. Some of the ideas or innovative suggestions that come up might be awesome. If they don’t fit with the key strategic drivers right now, can you still capture them to add into the mix later? Wally Bock has a great blog post on how to mine for hidden treasures.

  1. Regularly review priorities with your team

While we’re on the subject of to-do lists, have regular conversations with your direct reports about what their current 3-5 priorities are. If you’re adding another task or project, work with your team member to look at where this fits in with current priorities. Don’t assume they know. What needs to move down the priority list as a result of this new thing?

  1. Give people input into how they carry out their work

Involve people in the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of their work, as well as the ‘what’. If they can have some input into how they carry out their work, it will improve wellbeing and guard against another one of the six causes of burnout: a lack of control.

  1. Clear the path of weeds

Work together to remove the ‘pebbles in people’s shoes’ – the red tape and bureaucracy that litters most workplaces. Review workflow and systems for inefficiencies. Empower your people to make suggestions and offer solutions.

  1. Improve your meetings

I get it; meetings are important for collaboration and can help us get stuff done. But unless you’re doing them well, they’re a time waster. See this blog post on tips on how to run a good meeting. Do a meeting audit with your team, asking these questions:

  • What is the purpose of this meeting? Do we even need a meeting? Or is there an alternative way of communicating that would be better in this instance?
  • How is our agenda working? Where do we need to improve? Are we trying to squash too much in?
  • Who needs to be there? And perhaps, more importantly, who doesn’t?

Once you’ve limited your meetings to what is necessary and valuable, create buffer. Avoid scheduling things back-to-back – and encourage others to do this too. Beware the default 1 hour meeting. Try a 45-minute meeting, or even the 30-minute meeting instead. What can you do to create a little more space in the calendar to deal with the unexpected and to take care of yourselves throughout the day too?

  1. Lead by example

This won’t be new advice, but it’s worth repeating. I’ve often said that as leaders, we underestimate the shadow we cast. Lead from the front when it comes to wellbeing. A leader who sets an example of self-sacrifice can’t help but ask for self-sacrifice from others. Take off your overworking badge of honour and model what you want to see in others. This remains the best way to influence your team’s behaviour.

One leader I was talking to insists on leaving the office loudly – making a point of showing that she’s exiting the office at a reasonable hour, as opposed to creeping out quietly. Most successful leaders I work with prioritise physical exercise – it really does make a difference to your performance and wellbeing. Rest, recovery and reflection are critical components to thrive – alongside effort, action and hard work. We need to find a way to hold both in balance. It’s time we give up the belief that we need to be constantly working in order to be successful. We need to stop worshipping at the altar of busyness and remove the ‘cult of busy’ from our cultures by better organising the way we work.

By all means, offer those mindfulness classes. Knock yourself out with the fruit bowl in the lunchroom. Do the lunchtime yoga classes. But don’t let that be the only thing you’re doing as a leader to improve wellbeing for your employees at work.


  1. Wilfred McPherson on June 16, 2022 at 6:30 am

    Great article Suzi! We could defininetly streamline our meetings and workload using your article as a guide. Thank you!

  2. Emma Condon on April 30, 2022 at 9:59 am

    Hi Suzi,

    This is a great post! I really liked the points you made throughout the article relating to one’s wellbeing. I can relate directly in taking care of yourself and making sure your well being comes first, before anything else. I also really liked the idea of making a “to-don’t” list! I have never heard of that before – I look forward to trying these strategies in my personal and professional career.


  3. Jun Tian on April 25, 2022 at 8:25 am

    Hi, Suzi
    Thanks for your excellent blog article to showcase the “cake” (prioritizing and organizing) in the wellbeing efforts at work. I have been receiving a “live well, work well” newsletter since September 2020 in my company. In each newsletter, the employees were offered valuable information including stress managing, healthy eating, getting decent quality sleep and so on. It helps the company to build a relationship with employees and build them up on the competent leadership skills.
    You give details how to organize and prioritize in an organization for success. This knowledge impacts your audiences’ intellect, encouraging them to acquire and process the information. The leaders need to know how to think and plan strategically. It is refreshing to hear your suggestion of Making a to-don’t list. Also, your questions in the section of improving meetings inspire me to reflect how I can keep my schedule realistic. If the calendar causes me to stress, I should rethink and adjust my schedule.
    Last, I want to commend your advice of leading by example. It helped me to relate the points in a book named “building the leaders” by Malphurs & Mancini. The authors encourage the leaders to model what they want to see in others. They state that this remains the best way to influence their teams’ behavior. A well-nurtured leadership culture will create a contagious Dynamic among the company employees in your discussion here. Values are caught, attitudes rub off, behaviors are modeled and imitated. Wellbeing efforts at work will bear fruits and a healthy workplace is genuinely accomplished. I appreciate this great post to motivate me to study and mediate.
    Jun Tian (J.T.)

  4. Jen C on April 8, 2022 at 9:48 am

    Excellent ‘playbook’ summary. I will be sharing your URL!!!

  5. P.Simon on April 8, 2022 at 4:27 am

    Love this!!! I have a co worker who always said don’t work harder work smarter. This article took me back to that conversation. Im definitely going to share this article.

  6. George Buchanan on April 5, 2022 at 7:03 pm

    Great post Suzi. A few years we wrote up a list of all the things we didn’t like about what and how we were doing things. It lead to a partnership with another firm who loved doing all those things, freeing us up to do what we do best. Writing our to don’t list was like ditching a heavy rucksack.

    • Suzi McAlpine on April 6, 2022 at 12:08 pm

      Such a simple yet impactful exercise you did – with great outcomes George. Brava!

  7. Heidi on April 5, 2022 at 11:10 am

    This is gold – thank you

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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