The Shocking Truth about Leadership and Mental Health

By Nicola Brown on May 5, 2016

Picture a CEO. What do you see? Often the first people that come to mind are well known, have larger-than-life personalities, and are wildly successful.

Perhaps you're picturing Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple until his death in 2011, arguably one of the most (if not the most) important figures in the personal computing revolution. Or perhaps you're thinking of Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, recently ranked by Forbes as one of the most powerful women in the world.

These leaders exude confidence and poise; they seem the epitome of success. But when the cameras aren't rolling, the immense pressures of the job and the psychological extremes needed to get there start to reveal themselves. Jobs often displayed characteristics of bipolar disorder, fluctuating between moments of joy and rage. Sandberg in her famous book Lean In reveals the challenging emotional struggles that women face in positions of power, particularly when the same leadership traits are viewed differently when exhibited by men and women, and how these situations can negatively affect mental health.

CEOs Are People, Too

While society is coming to terms with its stance on mental health and starting to challenge deep-seated associations like "weakness," when it comes to the C-Suite, discussing emotional wellbeing openly is still a touchy subject. But why should we assume or expect CEOs to be psychologically distinct from the rest of the population? In a recent scholarly review, Jayne Barnard puts it perfectly:

People who have risen to the status of a public company director are no less human than gym teachers, athletes, gardeners, or astronauts; they, too, may be irrationally exuberant, childishly selfish, passionately wrong-headed, or morally lost.

Science shows that the pressures of leading at the top exhibit themselves in recurring pathologies in CEOs-narcissism, over-optimism, fear, anger, and depression. Dennis Miller, author of Moppin' Floors to CEO knows the last struggle in that list all too well. While the business world's top leaders enjoy the rewards of career and financial success, in getting to that point they open the floodgates to mental health issues and the resulting stigma that still surrounds them.

One study seems to show that there is a strong link between job authority and depression in women. According to the study, women with job authority (control over others' work) are more depressed than women without. Interestingly, the study reports that men with job authority are less depressed than men without. However, some studies have shown that men underreport depressive symptoms, often due to differences in gender role socialization. One way to interpret this is that men may be underreporting depression due to a problematic way of thinking about what does or doesn't constitute "manliness." Particularly at the highest levels in successful organizations, leaders are often expected to have a thick skin to withstand the cut-throat nature of big business. This could mean that men underreport depressive symptoms particularly when they occupy positions of authority. Indeed, Barnard points out that some studies have shown that in fact CEOs may be depressed at more than double the rate of the general public.

Wow. So why is a discussion of mental health so absent when we climb the ranks?

CEOs experience depression at twice the rate of the general public

The Next Big Hurdle for Mental Health Is in the C-Suite

High-powered individuals often do not want to admit vulnerability, and depression is unfortunately viewed as a weakness - Dennis Miller

In his book Moppin' Floors to CEO, Miller traces his own turbulent personal story, which includes bouts of childhood abuse (emotional and physical) and a stint in a psychiatric hospital. Despite his setbacks, Miller goes from mopping floors at a hotel to running a hospital to becoming CEO of his own business consulting firm. He sites investing in his emotional health as the key to his personal growth, happiness, and success. Through his personal story, Miller offers us a great example of how depression and success can exist in the same sentence. Indeed, sometimes some of our negative emotions can be turned into positive drivers. But the answer lies in properly acknowledging and addressing the need for more open acceptance and discussion of mental health in leadership positions.

4 Tips For Managing Stress, Anxiety, and Depression in the Workplace

When it comes to mental health, high-pressure roles and leadership traits, Dennis Miller has been there, done that. Here are four tips taken from his personal experience to help you and your colleagues manage the pressures of the C-Suite life:

1. Don't suffer alone. This may seem like common sense, but far too many people are ashamed of admitting they are depressed and stressed out. Reach out to a close friend and confide in them; build a support system. You can also reach out to someone in your HR department, faith-based organization, or a local mental health center to ask for support.

2. Learn to manage your stress. Stress is a common condition of today's world, however, when it leads to depression and anxiety it can interfere in your personal and professional responsibilities. Focus on those things in the workplace that you can control and you'll greatly reduce the load you're having to bear.

3. Understand that depression is extremely common and very treatable. It's not a character flaw. There is still too much stigma in our society about mental health issues, but not that long ago, people who suffered from cancer also felt stigmatized. Times are changing.

4. Try to maintain a balanced life. Work is important, but you can't be married to your job. Try to develop friendships, exercise and eat healthy foods, and take time off for vacations. We all need to de-stress ourselves on a regular basis. Don't wait until Friday afternoon to plan your weekend, start much earlier in the week.

Happy CEO5 Tips for CEOs to Keep Workplaces Healthy and Happy

In addition to managing your own mental health successfully, managers should be responsible for creating an environment that helps to end the stigma of mental health in the workplace.

1. Hold regular check-in meetings with employees, or have HR conduct meetings to assess how employees are getting on with their work and the workplace. Often just having a regular outlet to air grievances can abate issues that build up over time. In addition, allow anonymous comments, suggestions, and concerns from employees. Often people don't feel comfortable talking about problems at work, so give them a way to be heard where they don't feel threatened or vulnerable.

2. Educate yourself. The best way to maintain positive mental health in yourself and your employees at work is to educate yourself on what certain situations look like. Learn the early warning signs for someone who is stressed, anxious, or getting into conflicts at work. Be proactive about reaching out to that employee-suggest taking some time off, or offer to schedule a meeting with yourself or HR. Above all make sure you're hearing their concerns.

3. Be careful in the language you use around mental health. Words like "psycho" and "crazy," even when used casually or jokingly, can be extremely hurtful. Educate your employees about their language in the workplace.

4. Reward employees for small acts of kindness. It's easy to overlook the beneficial effects of helping out with a mundane task or giving a compliment. Encourage employees to perform a couple of small acts of kindness each week, even online through the office social media network. The effort will pay off tenfold.

5. Actually uphold work-life balance. This is tough in a competitive business landscape. The tendency is to think that the later employees stay the more work they'll get done and the faster the business will grow. In fact it can be the opposite. Overworked employees are often less productive and more stressed, and these issues compound over time. Businesses are actually more efficient and effective when they uphold values around work-life balance.

The job of a CEO is a tough one without the stigma surrounding mental health. With that stigma, it becomes crippling for many. The first step to creating solutions is acknowledging there's a problem-mental health needn't be a taboo topic.

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Nicola Brown

Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at