In South Africa’s tough economic climate and competitive business environment, progressive companies are compelled to focus on the engagement and retention of highly skilled and productive employees.

To this end, the promotion of employee wellbeing has never been more critical. Line management plays a significant role in influencing the employee’s experience in the workplace. Managers’ behaviour towards employee wellbeing is crucial, as it manifests in factors such as employee performance, productivity, job satisfaction, motivation, engagement and morale in the workplace. A lack of wellbeing in employees can ultimately lead to attrition and absenteeism which place pressure on a company’s productivity levels.

A recent study undertaken by Dr Rose Mathafena, a post-doctoral fellow in the department of leadership and organisational behaviour within Unisa’s Graduate School of Business (SBL), has sought to explore how line managers’ leadership styles influence employee well-being on an emotional, mental, physical and spiritual level.

Mathafena explains that management – and the way managers lead – plays a significant role in determining employee wellbeing. Interpersonal leadership is about relating to others in a healthy and conducive manner in order to build and maintain healthy relationships.

It is important to understand those functional leadership behaviours that can lead to heightened effectiveness. As managers have different personalities and outlooks, there different types of leadership styles and practices. Those styles that have been found to have strong links with employee wellbeing outcomes include transformational-, empowering-, ethical-, servant- and authentic leadership.

Encouraging rich, purposeful and meaning work with transformational leadership

Transformational leaders are sometimes called quiet leaders and tend to lead by example. They use rapport, inspiration, or empathy to engage followers. The more employees feel psychologically safe in the organisation, the more freely and positively they will communicate, participate, contribute and identify with the organisation.

These leaders contribute significantly towards enhancing employee innovation, creativity and problem solving, which are the key qualities required in employees in order to drive organisational competitiveness and market positioning.

Empowering leadership to develop creative employees

Empowering leaders foster a positive working environment by equipping employees to perform their roles successfully. They delegate responsibility and authority and provide the necessary resources and support for employee success. In addition, empowering leaders provide employees with opportunities to grow their decision-making skills, experience and knowledge which in turn enhances employee creativity.

Communication, coaching and feedback – the stamp of ethical leadership

As well as being honest, truthful, faithful, caring and respectful towards employees, ethical leaders allow employees to contribute to decision-making and problem-solving. The leader’s ethics are demonstrated through behaviour, action and interpersonal relations, which practically guide employees where ethics are concerned.

This guidance is provided through communication, coaching and feedback. In addition, ethical leaders are fair, consistent, and demonstrate integrity in their actions.

Serving to guide and lead

Servant leadership is characterised in line managers and leaders who, while empowering, also display humility and authenticity. They are focused on development, mentorship, guidance and engendering healthy interpersonal exchanges.

Servant leadership acts as a countermeasure and antidote to the challenges of employee burnout, high employee turnover and unethical corporate corruption and behaviours faced by organisations today. Servant leaders fairly apply power which promotes healthy and trusting work relationships.

Engaging employees through self-actualisation and authentic leadership

Authentic leaders hold high moral values, have a strong sense of self-awareness, and act upon their values and beliefs. In leading staff members, they display high levels of honesty, goodwill and care. Through genuine and unselfish motives, authentic leaders are able to develop, motivate, grow and engage employees.

Authentic leaders are self-actualised individuals with highly developed self-leadership qualities. Their strong moral code, integrity and truthfulness make them effective in building credible and trustworthy relations with others. Moreover, authentic leaders promote hope, confidence, optimism and overall wellbeing.

What employee desire from leaders

Within the study, the participating employees identified a number of key issues that contributed to their wellbeing and ability to provide optimal work.

Inclusion and communication

Participants recognised that without healthy interpersonal relationships, management is less successful in influencing, engaging, motivating and inspiring employees. Communication, feedback and information sharing from line management were deemed to be critical in enabling and unlocking employee abilities to perform tasks. P

articipants believed that good communication enhanced their productivity. They expressed a desire for clear, honest and balanced communication.

Skills to build trust

A competent manager is skilled in utilising employees’ competence to deliver results through delegation and empowerment. However, delegation requires a belief and trust that the employee is able to do the task. Thus, it is important that leaders and managers support employees with skills and knowledge and offer guidance to develop employee potential and build trust in their capabilities.


Apart from financial incentives and good remuneration practices in the organisation, the participants viewed recognition and reward as critical. Recognition, participants indicated, could be expressed in a thank you, or acknowledgement. Additionally, participants also expressed the need to feel included as part of the team.

Living by example

Overseen by a positive and functional line manager, participants described an active desire to contribute to the organisational vision and mission. Their drive to contribute and participate was voluntary, self-motivated and self-inspired as opposed to reacting out of compliance. In addition, it was important for leaders to live the company values and display ethical conduct. Participants believed that it was not enough to pay lip-service to these principles; the proof was in living by example.


The insights from the study indicated a need for companies to develop healthy and functional management practices and behaviour, which can enhance employee wellbeing. This, in turn, can result in positive organisational outcomes expressed in employee satisfaction, retention and productivity.

Typical organisational outcomes for companies with healthy and productive employees are financial growth, greater sales, market development, excellent customer service, product development, and overall high-quality performance. Employee wellbeing is multifaceted in that it includes emotional, mental, physical and spiritual levels.

Nurturing these aspects of employees, where possible, can enable and enhance engagement, motivation and commitment. Ensuring the wellbeing of employees is well within the grasp of all companies. It can be promoted by investing in high-quality employee-line manager interaction and relationships. Management should adopt practices that promote and nurture staff members in order for them to deliver optimal results while flourishing as individuals.