What to do if one of your senior leaders suffers a mental health issue

What to do if one of your senior leaders suffers a mental health issue

With 26 years’ experience as a Royal Navy fighter pilot and surveillance pilot for the security services and UK Special Forces, Vistage speaker, Matthew Whitfield, is no stranger to elite leadership.

After leaving the military, Matt used his wealth of skills and experience to start his own executive coaching company, 7 Miles A Minute. His goal: to help leaders develop and nurture a growth mindset, which he believes is the key to becoming the best leader you can be. When it comes to mental health in the workplace, Matt believes promoting positive mental health has to start at the top.

So what should business leaders do if someone within their leadership team is suffering from a mental health problem? We caught up with him to find out.

Vistage: As a leader, what should your first steps be if you’re concerned that someone within your management team is suffering from a mental health condition?

Matthew Whitfield: In order to set the scene, we need to know something about this leader, we need to know if they themselves have a healthy mind. It serves a purpose to describe what that means before we launch into, ‘Right, I’m going to deal with them like this, I’m going to say that. Done. Let’s get on with running the business.’ In reality that’s not how excellent or ‘elite’ leaders operate - and by ‘elite’ I mean the best version of ourselves. If they have a healthy mind you know they’re in control of their emotions and their reactions, the way they think and behave. So, what does this leader need for a healthy mind?

There was a great article that came out in the Harvard Business Review in 2011 about how we should manage our time in order to have a healthy mind. There are seven parts to this and I’ll go through them quickly.  

Focus time: time we closely focus on the goal-orientated stuff at work, where we’re deeply engaged with our brain, solving the challenges that we have. Not looking at phones, not working in the middle of meetings - real undistracted focus. Then there’s play time, where we afford ourselves the time to play and be creative and spontaneous and have novel experiences. Why do you want to do that? That’s how we engage different parts of our brain. Then we have connecting time. By connecting I mean with real people, with eye contact, spending time together in the laughter and the company and the noise of people.

Physical time: we need to move our bodies. We’ve got to be active, aerobically if possible, because the mind and the body are absolutely connected. If we want a healthy mind, we need a healthy body. Time ‘in’, is the next one: when we quietly reflect internally and focus on sensations, images, feelings and thoughts we’ve had. This is about slowing ourselves down. When do we reflect? I think many people that read this will say, ‘Maybe when I’m in the car driving back from school?’ That’s not really reflecting time, that’s not focusing. When you’ve completed an activity, do you actually stop and go, ‘Right, what happened? What did I learn? How do I feel about it?’

Down time. This is tricky, and I struggle with this. I was a fighter pilot for twenty-odd years - you don’t get to be in that sort of job by sitting around wondering about things - you’ve got to be very focused and organised. Down time is when we’re not focused on any specific goal and we just let our minds wander. There’s no pressure. We don’t put any pressure on our brains to produce, to deliver goals. It’s letting your mind simply relax, which, of course, is giving our brain the chance to recharge.  

The last one is sleep. Sleep time is when we’ve absolutely got to concentrate on giving the brain a chance to do the physical, the hormonal, the biochemical resetting that it needs. Let it learn and do what it does. Reboot, think about stuff, put stuff in its files and recharge so we can fight the next day. So leave your smartphone downstairs. People say, ‘Oh, I have to use my phone. Got to leave my phone on as an alarm clock.’ No, you don’t. As Simon Sinek says: ‘Spend $7 and buy a proper alarm clock.’

So, that’s what I term the seven milestones to mental wellbeing. And going back to your question: as a leader, where do we start? Well, the start is setting the example with your own time management.  

The second essential part is to know your people. That’s been incredibly important in my life and the leaders I’ve worked with. As a leader, you have to invest that focused time on those you work with: your colleagues. By that, I mean you’ve got to let them know you, and you need to know them so as you can spot the tiniest little shifts in behaviour when things are getting on top of them. By knowing them, you might know they’ve got a new baby, or that there’s been a death in the family, or that the children might be suffering at school. It’s generally a people thing - ‘I’ve smashed the car’; ‘I need to go to the dentist.’ And health can be a trouble. Our friends, our family and our health are the three priorities you need to know about your people.

V: Are there specific signs or behaviours that leaders should look out for within their team that could be signposting trouble ahead, or someone suffering from something like depression or other kinds of mental health problems?

MW: Well, I would like to think that most grown people in their working lives would know what signs to look for in themselves if they don’t feel particularly healthy in the mind. If someone you work with doesn’t normally display levels of anxiety or worry that could be a sign; if they’ve lost interest in a few things that made them happy, or they enjoyed. That’s tricky at work, of course, but there are workplaces where people routinely do something social together. It might be, ‘Let’s go out and play five-a-side together. Let’s go and use the gym together.’ Or going to the Christmas do, or someone’s birthday, or celebrating a great contract coming through. Some may start detaching from that. I think one of the more obvious ones that we see as human beings is emotional outbursts - and I mean both ends of the scale. From shouting and screaming, angry, right down to withdrawn and tears. That’s a tricky one to deal with, but it is another sign.

Signs of mental health problems at work

One we see more and more these days is sleep problems. People who you catch at work yawning, just not being switched on, or not being able to get to work on time. You see sloppiness in their punctuality or their routine habits that you’ve known and loved and that you hired them for. You might even start seeing a drop in their performance.

Of course, you‘re only going to know these things if you know your people. It has to come back to that and if you’re going to know your people you’ve got to make time for that.  

V: If you do notice something within your team, would you recommend confronting them about the issue and talking about it, or trying to help without directly addressing the problem? What’s the most helpful approach?

MW: Right now, I think everybody’s struggling with this. You’re going to struggle with it if you don’t know your people well enough. If you know your people well enough you will have the right language to bring it up in conversation. There are things you can’t do, things you mustn’t do, which is banter with them, take the mickey out of them. Things like: ‘You seem to have had a lot of days off work recently. Everything alright?’ and other throwaway comments. What you have to do, rather than approach them, is that if they come to you, acknowledge it straight off and say, ‘Crikey, that must be really tough for you, and I also take it as a huge compliment that you trust me enough for you to want to share that with me.’

I think the next thing would be to say, ‘There are plenty of things we, as an organisation, or I, as your colleague, can do to help you.’ But in the first place, are you going to confront them? Are you going to make some inquiries in the background? I think it needs to be a one to one. And it has to be confidential because we as humans find it very difficult to deal with the stigma around mental health. The environment - where you approach them, or they approach you - is important.  

There are so many chief executives who have beautiful offices and nice little horseshoes of trees and wonderful tables and comfy chairs, but they still feels like the place you would go to get a promotion, the place you’re going to go to get a bollocking, the place you’re going to go to break news. I would go for a walk outside, even just walk around the building, side by side, so there’s no looking at each other. Make it easy for them.  

V: What can you, as the leader, do to help?

MW: You may have an occupational health department, or you may have somebody who’s contracted as your occupational health provider. When I was in the military, we were very lucky to have an on-duty padre. Of course when you talk to your doctor or padre, as long as you’re not going to harm yourself, harm anyone else, sabotage or commit a crime, what you say to them is kept between the two of you. There are no end of charities, particularly Mind, who are very good, who will listen. I think as the main man or woman, you ought to have a clear idea of what resources your organisation could make available to help your colleagues.

V: How do you balance the needs of the individual and the business?

MW: Obviously, this isn’t an on/off occurrence. It’s not ‘everything’s rosey-rosey, bang, someone flicks a switch, I’m not functioning correctly, and suddenly the business starts falling’. It’s a gradual thing. It is the individual you need to deal with. It’s cost you a fortune to hire them and train them - you want to retain them. I have been in organisations where they just push people to the side and plough on. I firmly believe that you have to look after the individual, and that requires us as senior leaders to give them options for how. Then you get them back on track with the seven parts of their time.

Can we alter the hours they work? Are the mornings particularly stressful? Is it a hectic commute across town? You can shunt someone’s hours or reduce them slightly. Let them start at 10:00 so they can do a school run, or so they don’t have to be in the thick of it. Or could they work flexibly?

Always focus on looking after the individual: what can you do as their boss or as their colleague? Then, of course, there are the tasks they’re doing at work. Do you need to take them off certain projects or hand them over to somebody else?  Now, you and I both know, as individuals, we’re like, ‘Oh, no, that’s going to make me worse, because then you’re going to think I’m hopeless.’ So, it has to be a conversation with you as the boss. When you offer them help, be it the Occupational Health or someone in a charity or the GP or one of these incredibly highly trained professional psychiatric nurses, talk it out with them. It should always be, ‘What do you think?’ not, ‘I think you should’. It’s always down to the individual.

Next there’s the question of whether or not the C-Suite are really a team. Are they going to watch each other’s backs? If the chief finance officer is going to do a four-day week or a project is now one person down, is the team ethos strong enough that they can support and back up someone who’s struggling? That is what you’re going to need to keep the business going. That’s what I have seen routinely throughout my career and what I see in the best organisations around the world. We were in Chicago recently and that’s what was happening. You know, if someone was struggling a bit or wanted to address their wellbeing, the rest of their teammates were there for them. Again, what does that come down to? It comes down to knowing each other: knowing that our teammates are real teammates -  wing-people.

V: So it all comes back to company ethos and culture?

MW: Right, it is a company ethos, but what does ethos mean to you and me? You can walk into any organisation and see words etched in glass or chiselled in stone: trust, accountability, resilience. The usual adjectives you would love to build an organisation on. The culture of that organisation - by that I mean the personality of the organisation - is really tricky to change. What you can do is change the climate. The climate is the mood, the feel of the place you’re working in. How does it feel to work there? Do you walk in and go, ‘Wow, I quite like being in here’? Climate can be easily turned around into one where wellbeing, teamwork and the team code of conduct can be mended.

All the research over the last 25 years highlights again that it’s the person at the top of that organisation that has the effect on the climate. So, is the boss in at seven every morning? Are they sat at their desk, looking out, going ‘Alright? Something wrong with your watch, mate? I thought we were in at 7:00 this morning?’ It all comes from the very top.

As Matt says, your mental wellbeing as the leader is vital to the mental wellbeing of your team. If you’re interested in developing your leadership skills and nurturing your mental health, find out more about joining a Vistage group.

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