Since the Coronavirus pandemic, conversation around mental health has increased. According to UK Parliament, recent data shows “the number of people contacting the NHS seeking help for mental health problems is now at a record high.” As our article on mental health workplace support explains, the issue is now a priority that organisations cannot ignore. Leaders are having to find solutions to help manage staff mental wellbeing. What can they do for themselves however, to support their own mental health?
A survey was recently conducted with 12,000 people across 11 countries. The research revealed more C-Suite executives have experienced mental health issues compared to their employees. Published on Horton International, data also shows many CEOs are struggling with fatigue and “continual stress”.
What’s affecting the mental health of leaders?
The pressure to “lead by example” means many CEOs follow a culture of overwork. CEOs often prepare for worst-case scenarios and juggle multiple tasks which can increase anxious thoughts. Covid and Brexit have brought new stresses: working from home, potential job and profit losses, living in uncertainty.
Regardless of what’s happening, as leaders, CEOs can feel a need to look strong and positive in front of their staff. This impacts loneliness – in a top position, it is not necessarily easy to find people to talk to. If a CEO has a personal health issue, such as cancer, they can struggle to lead effectively, not least because of their fear and worry that they won’t be able to fulfil their own expectations of themselves.
Our CEO, Thom Dennis, discusses how leaders work best when they are team builders and emphasises how it’s important for leaders to not lead alone. Click here to watch the video.
How CEOs and leaders can look after their own mental health
We spoke to Noa Burger, a workplace wellbeing and mental health specialist who supports organisations in building resilient, productive and compassionate teams. We asked Noa to share her top tips for improving C-Suite mental health.
Dealing with the climate of uncertainty
“It would surprise me if leaders weren’t feeling anxious over the last 18 months. A first step is to recognise that anxiety is a natural response to the uncertainty and pressure many leaders face.
Think of anxiety as an alarm system that flags up a threat and prompts us into action. If we increase our self-awareness, we tune into the warnings sooner and respond before things escalate. More proactively looking after your wellbeing helps here. Things like exercise, taking regular breaks, connecting with others. We can also learn to build our tolerance for uncertainty over time.
However, the alarm system can misfire, causing us to get stuck in a loop of anxious thinking that may no longer be proportionate to the threat or useful to us. In those instances, we may need a space to talk about what we’re going through”, says Noa.
The culture of overwork
A BBC article discusses the glorification of overwork. Despite long-hours potentially causing exhaustion and burnout, many of us romanticise the lifestyle. There is a belief that more hours will automatically mean more success. Noa says, “If you want to sustain high performance, you have got to invest in yourself. Nobody’s energy is infinite, and you need to know what adds to your tank and what depletes it.
Recovery time is crucial. A few minutes during the day when you are not available for anyone else’s needs. Some scheduled evenings or weekends when you don’t check emails. Holidays and breaks. And, critically, sleep. This is essentially about boundaries and discipline. So, delegating and saying no where you can. Scheduling your time to reflect your priorities, and making room for something that gives you joy. You will sometimes need to be flexible, but when you can’t do what you planned, try to give it five minutes, rather than skipping it altogether. This will help to reinforce it as a habit.”
The pandemic will have forced some CEOs to consider staff cuts, re-evaluate business aims and potentially business location. Although uncontrollable, these negative factors may have carried feelings of guilt and failure for leaders.
Noa says, “Being the one who is responsible for those kinds of decisions can feel very lonely. Try to distinguish between what was in your control, what you had the ability to influence, and what was out of your hands that you have no choice but to accept.
We build our resilience by learning from past adversity, so reflect on how you managed those decisions and use that to plan for the next challenge. If those feelings of guilt or failure don’t reduce with time, or if they become consuming, it’s important to find professional support, such as talking therapy, to help you safely explore what might be going on .”
An organisation’s finances are one of the biggest priorities for a CEO. Many leaders spend time worrying about where the next deals are coming from, what’s affecting cashflow, and if margins are correct for the work being done.
Clearly the detail needs to be handled by an expert, the CFO but the CEO needs to maintain a watching brief over the numbers. The relationship between these two players needs to be close and collaborative – the CFO needs to be maintaining realism whilst the CEO is looking to the future and holding out for the unachievable.
To alleviate this stress and stay in control, monitor your businesses’ finances on a daily basis. Then review your daily takings against your business plan targets. With this data, leaders can begin to action a new plan and put some ideas together to either maintain or improve company income.
Prioritising mental health
Despite research suggesting leaders are more likely to experience poor mental health, organisations seem to place most focus on employees. “We know that CEOs are as vulnerable to mental ill health as any of us, but only a handful talk openly about it. People like Lloyd’s boss, António Horta-Osório, are an exception, and hearing someone in a similar position to you share their experiences makes conversation more possible.
This is about giving leaders permission to prioritise their own wellbeing, and leaders giving themselves permission. It requires a shift in expectations; our ideas about what leadership is and how it behaves. More mental health awareness across organisations will accelerate this shift, and that includes employees, Boards and business owners”, Noa says.
When leaders openly discuss their mental health, staff become encouraged to do the same. This in turn creates a more positive, workplace mental health culture. It is also important to have a circle of people around you as the CEO, people from whom you can welcome feedback. It’s these people who are also more likely to recognise the symptoms of stress before you do, and signal it so that you can do what is necessary to act upon this before your body does it for you.
Depending on their time of life, most CEOs need to find activities out of the office – it’s a great way to find temporary release. Thom recalls the motto of the physical training branch of the Royal Marines, adopted from the Latin: Mens sana in corpore sano - 'A sound mind in a sound body', so physical activity, team sports, and the socialising that these things bring are all ways to help alleviate stress.
Finding someone to confide in
As CEOs want to look strong in front of their employees, there can be little room to open up at work. This partly leads to loneliness – employees can lean on their team members in a way a leader cannot.
In choosing who to confide in, Noa recommends finding “someone you trust and who is a good listener. Seek out a mentor or coach, connect with peers in similar positions, lean on friends and family, or look for a registered therapist.
Many organisations now provide mental health training for their employees. One example is mental health first aid schemes that upskill colleagues to listen to those experiencing difficulties and signpost them to support. These schemes need to include diverse representation, including from the C-Suite and Board. Everyone should have someone they would be comfortable to approach.
At the same time, perhaps we can rethink our definition of strong. It’s not easy to unlearn, but the notion that this means always stoic, always unaffected, always infallible is unrealistic and unhealthy for those we demand it from, including ourselves”, says Noa.
By reflecting, learning coping techniques, scheduling time for enjoyment, and ensuring a network for support, leaders can begin to prioritise their own mental health. For many, this will not be easy. There is still pressure to withhold the cultural expectations of a CEO. But with the continual focus on mental health, society can begin to adapt what it means to be a strong leader.
Serenity in Leadership has been working with CEOs and senior executives for 30 years. Our experience includes coaching and consulting with executives in Fortune and FTSE 500 companies such as Pfizer and Citigroup as well as much smaller organisations. We recently published an article on what keeps CEOs awake at night and you can read it here. Contact us now for a friendly chat to discuss more about our coaching: (+44) 7836 667726.