Mental health in leadership

In times where more than one in five adults will experience mental illness at some point in their life, there is an increasing awareness of the importance that mental health plays in society and in the workplace.  

However, despite the proliferation of articles designed to help leaders understand how it can impact their staff, little attention is directed towards the mental health of business leaders themselves. Yet a leader’s mental health is a primordial for a healthy business. A recent study by Bupa revealed:

  • 58% of business leaders say that in their position it’s hard to talk about their mental health
  • 1 in 4 people feel less support for mental health issues since becoming more senior
  • Sufferers fear that talking about their mental health would affect perceptions of their capabilities and careers prospects.

In essence, the qualities generally associated with leadership, like resilience and confidence, make it even harder for leaders to discuss mental health issues.

Some of the top leaders in business have internalised a notion that it is not acceptable to display any form of weakness. This was illustrated in the case of one of Australia’s top tax litigators and lawyers, PwC partner Judy Sullivan. When asked about how she dealt with her depression she responded:  “I had never been there before. I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t know how to fix it. I thought: everybody is going to think I’m weak. I saw my whole career going down the drain”.

She decided to come forward with her problems after a partner’s meeting organised to discuss the company’s future mental health programme, underlining the importance of discussion of the subject at C-level.

Unfortunately, the assumption that appearing weak is seen as unacceptable for leaders is not entirely without truth. The stress and risks endured by leaders are often seen to be compensated by their large rewards, an aspect that is likely to inhibit many leaders from revealing their mental health issues.

This was illustrated by the case of Lloyd Banking Group Chief Executive Antonio Hórto-Osório who admitted that he had “thrown himself in too much” and needed to step back. A Guardian poll showed that a majority of respondents (54%) believed that he was “paid well enough to take it”.

The cases of Antonio Hórto-Osório and Judy Sullivan highlight the importance for both a more open discussion of mental health issues at leadership level; as well as the need to change the expectations of business leaders.

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