This is the question that I have been asked several times and most recently at a Health and Wellbeing Event, where I shared my lived experience. When I started to consider this, I found quite a stark headline:
“Two-Thirds of business leaders have suffered from mental health conditions including anxiety, stress and depression with work often cited as a contributor to this” – Bupa 2018
Bupa’s study conducted with 1556 global business leaders found:
- 58% of business leaders say that in their position it’s hard to talk about mental health
- 1 in 4 people feel less support for mental health issues since becoming more senior
- Sufferers fear that talking about mental health would affect perceptions of their capabilities and career prospects
So, who looks out for the Senior Leaders, and what can we do to support their Mental Health? I posed this same question at the start of the year to a prominent Professor and leader in wellbeing, and he too came to a similar conclusion. He found that there was literature that explores the impact of leaders on follower wellbeing. However, there was nothing that focuses on the support that is specific to leaders.
While there appears to be an overwhelming lack of literature, I found some reference to:
- Challenging perceptions around mental health and leadership
- Ensuring there are services available to support senior people
- Creating mentally healthy open workplace cultures where senior staff feel able to access support
- Business leaders sharing their own experiences which can help to remove the stigma
It got me thinking about my own experience in an attempt to try and find some answers.
As you will know from my previous blogpost (https://www.hwbinspiration.com/lived-experience-blog-by-lou-harris/), I resigned from my job as a Managing Director. I didn’t realise or admit to it for a very long time, but I was suffering from severe anxiety and had been for about two years before resigning. The organisation I left had a clear commitment to mental health, visible leadership and support services that were accessible, fast and efficient and this created a culture of openness and acceptance which helped me find the courage to acknowledge I needed help and seek support. Despite the support I received (which was brilliant), I felt I could no longer continue working as a senior leader. I was absolutely exhausted. I felt unable to shoulder the responsibility that comes with a senior leadership role and unable to continue as a good leader should protecting the mental health and wellbeing of others when my own mental health needed more dedicated time and attention.
So why did it take me so long to do something? I was reluctant first and foremost to acknowledge that I was struggling with my mental health and secondly to ask for help. Why was this? We will all have our reasons. For me (not justified) I felt like I had to wear an “I am doing great” badge constantly. I was the leader, and people looked to me for direction and support, I couldn’t possibly acknowledge I was struggling and ask for help because people would question my ability as a leader. So, I basically tried to hide the fact I was struggling. When I did finally acknowledge and seek support and take time out while the side effects of my medication subsided and returned to work, the response was quite overwhelming. My absence due to my mental health had not negatively impacted on people’s views of my ability as a leader; in fact, it almost seemed to encourage more open conversations with my team and colleagues. I believe this was because first and foremost, they saw me as a human being.
So, is looking out and supporting senior manager any different to what we would do for anyone else in our organisations? I have concluded that the answer to this question based on my own experience is NO. I agree that it is essential to challenge perceptions around mental health and leadership, provide accessible services, and if leaders feel able and want to disclose it can have a tremendously positive impact on an organisations culture. The organisational culture was absolutely at the heart of giving me the courage as a senior leader to acknowledge I was struggling and seek support. As we know, it is leaders who create the culture of an organisation. And so, maybe we need to pay more considerable attention to the role of Boards? How often do Boards consider Mental Health and Wellbeing? What culture are they creating for the Senior Leadership team around mental health?
Similarly, I believe that colleagues and peers can play a vital role. We often work as senior leadership teams on some of the most challenging and wicked issues our organisations face, we come into regular contact, we share experiences, and this puts us in a great position to look out for one another. So, as Board members, leaders, colleagues, peers and human beings let’s look out for and support one another, as doing so could have a significant impact on our colleagues’ lives.