IMHO: Feelin’ alright?

It’s time to put director wellbeing on the agenda.

By Matthew Boyd CFInstD
3 May 2021
read time
4 min to read
Spiral staircase

OPINION: Over the past year I’ve spoken to many directors about governing through COVID-19 and how they managed their personal wellbeing in the face of extreme pressures. I think it’s time to highlight the issue of director wellbeing and create a platform for further discussion within the governance community.

In my relatively long governance career I’ve been on boards where directors have dealt with life-threatening illnesses, experienced personal tragedies, been subjected to bullying by fellow directors, faced pressure from shareholders and stakeholders, and been subject to public scrutiny through the media.

And, of course, they also steer their organisations through challenges and crises.  

Look up!

Health, safety and wellbeing (HS&WB) sits near the top of our board agendas. When it comes to the HS&WB of employees in our organisations, we work to ensure policies are fit for purpose, able to be operationalised, that we truly understand the risks and what we can do to mitigate these risks,  and we hold management to account for delivering on their HS&WB obligations and outcomes.

Simply put, boards are responsible for the HS&WB of their executive and staff. But, as I’ve discovered in conversations with other directors, there are often no regulations, policies, nor structures in place to support the HS&WB of directors.

At a recent IoD Chartered Members’ event, I asked a group of highly experienced directors whether their organisations had effective wellbeing policies and systems in place. The answer was a resounding “yes”. But, when I asked whether any of these policies and systems included the board the universal answer was “no”.

As a chair, I know that many of us provide a degree of informal support for the directors on our boards. However, it is often difficult to ascertain when directors require support. We meet infrequently as a board, we have limited time and full agendas, and directors may also be unwilling to share mental health issues with their chair. The chair may also be the board member at the greatest risk of stress – and who can they seek support from?

Directors simply cannot share sensitive matters arising at the board table with their personal networks outside the board or executive. This is a confidentiality conundrum and can result in what is often referred to as “corporate loneliness”.

Think about it

The focus of boards is to look through the organisation. There are formal board evaluation processes that look at performance, culture and board dynamics, but I’d argue that few boards spend enough time looking at, and discussing, wellbeing. A lack of upwards oversight is probably exacerbated by the perception that the people at the top don’t need looking after. After all that’s why they are directors. They are often perceived as tough, hardened, well paid and experienced at dealing with crises.

It’s also unclear where the legal responsibility for director wellbeing sits. No one lies awake at night worrying about directors’ wellbeing – except perhaps directors.

Let’s talk about it

Some say good directors need to navigate crises, including their own. I want to challenge this position. First, good directors do need to navigate crises – that is their job. But, that does not mean these crises don’t take a toll on mental health and wellbeing. In fact, I would argue that mental health has always been a key issue for directors. We just never used to talk about it.

These days directors are different – and that’s good. When I started as a professional director, my peers were usually seasoned corporate executives, accountants and lawyers. Today, directors are chosen for their specialist skills and perspectives, and this diversity adds value to our boards. They bring more to the board table, but increasingly today’s board member may not be a full-time professional director and may have less exposure to crises at the board level.

The role of directors has also become significantly more complex. Directors today are “always on duty”. And with greater scrutiny from the public through mainstream and social media, directors cannot expect to avoid the spotlight.

Where do we start?

I’ve started with a shopping list of actions for boards, organisations and the IoD.

At your next board meeting, identify the types of stress which could be impacting you or others on your board. Examples of the types of stress directors may face include:

  • COVID-19. At a professional and personal level most of us will have been impacted by the pandemic. It’s important to note some directors are still under stress
  • business/ financial crises – identify these risks and issues and their potential impacts on the board
  • board room dynamics – a toxic culture or bullying behavior on the board
  • media pressure – directors are often in the public eye
  • shareholder pressure
  • personal issues – including bereavements, physical or mental stress and sickness
  • loneliness – many professional directors may not have regular interactions with colleagues outside of the boardroom.

My top five suggestions to get director wellbeing on the agenda:

  • Review risk registers, wellbeing policies, resources and support – can these cover the board as well as employees
  • Boardroom practices – undertake board evaluations, ask the chair to manage the wellbeing of directors as part of their role and include wellbeing as a component of evaluations
  • A culture of support – reach out to fellow directors on your board and in your wider networks to see if they need advice and support and if you are directors ask yourself how you can provide more support to the chair
  • Likewise, if you need support, don’t be afraid to seek it from your chair, fellow board members or others in the governance networks
  • Lastly, the IoD should continue this conversation and work with its members to establish best practice for identifying and supporting director wellbeing.

In summary, all organisations are required to ensure the protection of their employees’ health, safety and wellbeing. Directors matter just like any other person who is involved in an organisation.

Ultimately, it is in the organisation’s best interests to have their directors and leaders in the best shape possible to perform their duties to the highest possible level.

New Zealand leadership on director wellbeing

In my own investigation, there’s little evidence that director wellbeing is on the radar in New Zealand or internationally. So, if you’ve found some best case practice internationally, let me know. I think we have an opportunity for New Zealand to become a benchmark for best practice in director wellbeing across the globe.

Matt Boyd profile
About the author

Matthew Boyd is an experienced Waikato-based director with more than 20 years’ experience in professional governance roles, including chair of Crown entities, commercial organisations, professional and amateur sport and NFPs. Matthew has had a successful corporate career including senior roles with Air New Zealand and is a Chartered Fellow of the Institute of Directors.

The views expressed in this article do not reflect the position of the IoD unless explicitly stated.

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