Life at the top can be lonely. It’s definitely stressful.
While business leaders may feel the need to put on a brave face, the high level of responsibility they take on day-to-day can be a risk to their mental health. One study from the University of California San Francisco found 30% of entrepreneurs admitted to struggling with depression. And in the UK, around 50% of respondents to an Institute of Directors survey reported experiencing poor mental health that was partly linked to work pressures.
But battling through with gritted teeth isn’t the answer. When leaders open up about their struggles, and then invest in emotional and organisational health in the firms they helm, they’re actually embodying good leadership.
In this four-part series we’ll be taking a top down view of mental health in the workplace. We’re leading with leadership in this article by considering why CEOs and senior leadership need to talk more about mental health. Then we’ll consider the positive impact of boosting mental health throughout the business, followed by expert advice for improving your own mental health. Finally, we’ll offer important advice on how to put the right strategies and support systems in place for your staff.
Working mental health in the UK
There are many ways to define mental health, but it’s helpful to consider it as operating on a continuum from good to poor, and from a mental illness diagnosis of none to severe.
We like this definition from The World Health Organisation (WHO): ‘Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’
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Working productively and fruitfully, and helping others to do the same, is a business leaders’ responsibility. Let’s consider the mental health temperature of the UK. Around 15% of the working age population of Great Britain have their productivity affected by symptoms associated with mental ill health such as sleep problems, fatigue, irritability and worry. And mental ill health is the largest cause of lost working days in Great Britain, with stress, depression and anxiety accounting for around 15.4 million lost days. This all results in an estimated annual cost to UK employers from mental ill health of between £33 billion and £42 billion.
Phew, those figures make for tough reading. So how can leaders take positive steps taking account for the likely occurrence of mental ill heath in their workplace?
Tough at the top
Business leaders can struggle with mental health more than anyone else due to their high-stress position, and they may feel the need to keep this private due to worries about investors, board members or employees losing confidence in them. But doing the exact opposite can be a turning point says Kate Hull-Rodgers, Vistage speaker and Director of HumourUs Limited. Kate works with governments, health organizations, business teams and leaders to encourage enjoyment and positive mental health in employment.
“When you're struggling with your mental health, the best thing to do is to ask for help. It’s a simple as that. It's not a sign of weakness. I often tell leaders to ignore the voice in their heads that says 'I should be able to handle this,' or 'I'm the leader of this organisation, I need to be the strong one,' because it’s b*****it,” says Kate.
“We all have mental health positive and then, at times, we can have mental health negative,” she continues. “One of the main methods of healing ourselves is to talk about the problem. If we have a problem, keeping it inside is one of the most toxic things that we can do. To let it out, to share it, the phrase I like to use is, 'A problem shared is a problem halved.'”
Getting rid of the myth of the flawless leader
Jason Saltzman, CEO and entrepreneur, says that: “Unfortunately, our society has… conditioned us to believe that no one wants to follow a flawed leader.” He’s passionate about dispelling that myth and encourages leaders to share their humanity and lead by example, to help colleagues who may share similar mental health struggles.
In his experience, when you’re transparent about your issues, you make your employees feel less alone. In turn, they’ll probably have more respect for you as a leader.
Extreme examples - António Horta-Osório
Perhaps one of the highest profile leaders to model the open sharing of their experiences with workplace stress is Lloyds Banking Group CEO António Horta-Osório. The story goes that as he completed a triumph for the business by taking the bank back to fully private - repaying the UK taxpayer’s money - his mental health reached breaking point. For years he had the future of the company and thousands of employees’ jobs resting on his shoulders, resulting in incredible stress, anxiety levels, and sleep deprivation followed by burnout. Horta-Osório ended up opening up to his leadership team and checked himself into a mental health clinic.
Not only was he open at the time, but Horta-Osório has spoken widely about his experiences and used them to create a year-long resilience programme in his workplace that provides advice on how to cope with stress. Covering nutrition, mindfulness, heart monitoring, sleep management, psychological testing and analysis, the program has benefited from his personal endorsement.
Taking your first step towards openness
It can be that much harder to take a small step towards openness as a leader. Kate Hull-Rodgers gives some perspective for those in this position.
“We have world leaders who are showing the way, saying, 'I struggle,' and I think it's incredibly positive. When I started with my work 30 years ago, nobody was talking about their mental health. Now, it’s acceptable. Having struggles with our mental health is not a weakness it’s simply a sign of the times because our world has got faster and more demanding.”
You don’t have to go full-on Horta-Osório all at once. Taking a small step towards openness, perhaps with a group of trusted advisers, can be a great start.
Building a workplace with good mental health – of employees and leadership alike – as a key priority raises morale, productivity, creativity and ultimately your bottom line. We’ll discuss this in the next article.