How to Balance a Culture of Wellness with High Performance

Mairi Doyle

Business performance and employee wellbeing are often pitted as conflicting with each other. However, far from being mutually exclusive, they are in fact intrinsically connected. If you create the type of culture that promotes wellbeing, everyone wins – your company, your people, and you as a leader. 

In this blog article, we look at the root causes of its cultural challenges and provide practical tips that leaders can implement right away to start making a positive difference.

1. Uncovering work-related causes of stress.

When we talk to clients, one of the biggest issues we hear is that people are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work they have. This relentless pressure to deliver means people feel they cannot take any time out to look after themselves – physically, mentally, emotionally – to restore a positive sense of wellbeing. 

To improve the wellbeing of your people, you need to get to the root causes of what is causing them to feel stressed, frustrated, and unhappy at work. While there could be many contributing external and deep-seated personal factors, it’s worth exploring whether some contributing causes can be found in your culture. This approach is what is often missing in corporate approaches to wellbeing. The prevailing philosophy is that as long as you provide people with Mental Health First Aiders and other great tools and interventions, that their wellbeing will be looked after, and you can keep demanding more and more of their time and energy. 

But this thinking is inherently flawed. It fails to address the underlying cultural issues that are impacting wellbeing. And this culture will be fuelled by beliefs and mindsets about what is needed to survive, and thrive, at your organisation.

2. Promoting wellbeing in a high achievement workplace

You may have a high achievement, results driven culture. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a very legitimate cultural strategy. It also does not mean that you have an unhealthy culture, but where it can start to be detrimental to wellbeing is when your people believe they have no choice but to deprioritise their own wellbeing and routinely work under pressure or for long hours to try and deliver these results. These beliefs could be ill-founded, but if they are widespread across your organisation, then they become a reality, and no amount of Wellbeing Days are going to make a difference. 

Because we are driven to assimilate, we’re constantly seeking messages about what we must do to fit in, what is expected of us and what is valued. Messages come primarily not from what is said, but from what is done. Culture is created through these unspoken messages people receive from what we at Walking the Talk refer to as behaviours, systems, and symbols. Here, we look at each in turn and offer a few suggestions of tangible activities you can do right away to promote a high performing and healthy culture.

Promote Wellbeing-Focused Behaviours

We pay particular attention to what people are doing around us: how they interact with others, how they conduct themselves. This teaches us what is expected, and we adjust our behaviour accordingly. From our experience working with organisations of all shapes and sizes, we have identified three behaviours leaders should dial up to increase wellbeing in high achievement cultures. 


Often people tell us that they don’t feel empowered to manage their personal wellbeing and that they are expected to consistently work at the expense of their own health. Yet when we speak to their leaders, there is often no such expectation. 

  • Be explicit with your team. Even if they don’t need it, give them permission, and empower them to make the best decisions to maintain their peak performance and deliver the agreed business outcomes. 
  • If you work in a virtual setting, make it clear that when someone is unwell there is no expectation of them logging on – in fact, insist they don’t. 
  • The best way to show your team that you really mean it when you give them permission to prioritise their wellbeing, is to role model this for yourself. If you simply say it, but don’t do it, they won’t believe that you are serious about it.


We’ve found that prioritisation is a key challenge for most organisations. If you as a leader can repeatedly demonstrate to your team how you prioritise, and help them do the same, it can have a massive impact on wellbeing. 

  • Be clear about what your priorities are, so they can align behind them. Spell out what you expect to stop or be deprioritised. It sounds simple, but so often when leaders get alongside their teams, they are surprised at their to-do-lists and the stress that is being caused unnecessarily by activities that have no or little strategic value. 
  • That sense of feeling overwhelmed is what drives people into a state of anxiety. By helping people focus, you are lifting a burden from their shoulders and making sure that the ‘must wins’ are delivered with no distractions.
  • Often people in very purposeful or client-centric organisations really struggle to say no. They are so motivated and driven by their organisation’s mission that they feel compelled to keep giving, sometimes at the expense of their own wellbeing. We encourage leaders to tap into this motivation to do the best for customers and fulfil the purpose by reminding their teams that they have a ‘duty of care’ to look after themselves. Only then can they truly do the best for the organisation in the long term.  


  • Get to know your team and what energises them or drains them. They could be very different to you. You may love ambiguity and the excitement of new possibilities, whereas a colleague may only perform at their best with clarity and direction. 
  • Understand what they need to operate at their best and make reasonable adjustments to play to their strengths. 
  • Create the psychological safety for your team to say if they need help or if they have something going on at home that is affecting their work performance. The best question you can ask if an individual’s performance takes a dip, is ‘Are you okay?’.

Tailor Systems to Balance High-Performance with Wellbeing

In cultural terms we’re referring to specific processes, policies, structures, and measures that underpin the way we operate. These also send strong messages about what is valued and as a result, they shape people’s behaviour.


In a high-performance culture, there is a lot of emphasis on winning and achieving results. People generally enjoy celebrating milestones. To show that it’s not winning at any cost, review your formal and informal reward and recognition systems to acknowledge people who model balancing performance and wellbeing. 

Resource Management

You need to ensure you have right-sized your objectives for the team members you’ve got, especially if the business outcomes or the size of your team has changed since the team objectives were set. 

  • Most people want to be stretched, but when the demands are too much, people start to feel overwhelmed, when that happens performance deteriorates and people burnout, reducing resources even further. 
  • Often, we hear from employees that the decision-making is slow and cumbersome, and duplication of work is not uncommon because it’s not clear who is responsible for what. This leads to unnecessary complexity and frustration, all key blockers to good workplace health. If this is an issue, prioritise carving out time to refresh your governance structure and clarify roles and responsibilities going forward.

Use Strong, Consistent Symbols

Consider how the decisions you make send a clear message about what you value. Use these symbols to send unambiguous messages that the wellbeing of your team is important. Here are two typical symbols that leaders can use to signal their intent.


Avoid rewarding and promoting managers and leaders who ‘break’ their teams in order to deliver the targets. We’ve all heard stories of toxic leaders who are tolerated because they are top performers. Making bold decisions around who leaves your organisation is an important symbol that would send a strong message about what is truly valued. 


Making small adjustments to the team meeting can dilute pressure in your teams. 

  • Review the frequency, attendance, and terms of reference for your standard meetings. Do you simply have too many unproductive meetings? 
  • Consider whether your meetings cram in too many topics, often overrun, lack clarity about who is accountable for what, and generally contribute to the stress levels of the team.
  • Introduce more helpful meeting protocols and stick to them.
  • Use at least some of your team meetings as opportunities to check-in, and agree what support people need. 
  • And include yourself in this conversation, just because you’re the leader, you are not immune to some of the same challenges as your team.

3. Keeping things in perspective

And even when you have the best intentions, there will be times when people are stressed. Under stress people are much more likely to get things out of proportion and start justifying why something can’t happen or start blaming other people or they simply use avoidance tactics. They go into victim mode. We call this going ‘Below the Line’ mindset and it blocks performance. A more helpful mindset to tackle the obstacles we all encounter, is to take an ‘Above the Line’ mindset where people feel like they have a choice and an ability to respond, no matter the circumstances.  

When either you or your team are faced with challenging circumstances, explicitly take an Above the Line approach by exploring "Okay, given the situation, how do we choose to respond?". Immediately, they will feel more empowered and take positive action, rather than sliding into a downward spiral. It takes time and intention, but coaching your team into an Above the Line mindset is incredibly helpful for their, and your, wellbeing and importantly, it drives action and performance.

Creating a performance driven culture that also fosters wellbeing doesn’t happen overnight. But by taking some of the practical actions listed above, you can strike a good balance. And remember, wellbeing is not something you ‘do’ to your organisation, but is the outcome of a healthy culture.

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