Mental Health and the C-Suite: Challenges, Taboos, and Solutions

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From 2019 to 2020, reported symptoms of anxiety in the workplace have tripled, and over 50% of people report worse mental health at work since COVID started. The pandemic has created heightened anxiety for many workers. COVID-specific stressors include high ambiguity and uncertainty, information and misinformation overload, worries about job security, risk of infection, loss of loved ones, and isolation created by social distancing. It should come as no surprise then that 96% of US adults indicate the pandemic has impacted their overall stress.

Mental health is a challenge for people at every level within the company, including the C-Suite. Those at the top are not more protected or immune from depression, stress, anxiety, and even burnout. After all, the high stress careers, poor work-life balance, and limited self-care typical of executives are a recipe for poor mental health.

Mental Health Challenges in the C-Suite

In addition to the struggles faced by people lower in the organization, many executives feel they have extra challenges as a result of their high-ranking position:

  • The pressure of being responsible and accountable for the company, its success, its former and current employees, and the customers/clients the business serves
  • The expectations to be ‘bulletproof’ and fully committed and available at all times
  • As the public face of the company, the need to always show their ‘A-game’ and be successful in all endeavors
  • The perceived impact to reputation and credibility as they navigate uncertainty in the market

In today’s day and age, an executive role often combines the fears of not delivering with amplified expectations and places them under the increased scrutiny of a social media and public opinion. And with the pandemic and a rapid shift to remote work, corporate leaders are burdened with greater stress than ever before. In short, the pressure is on.

The Taboos of Mental Health for Executive Leaders

Abigail Rappoport of Facebook asserts, “Far too often, senior executives feel pressured to hide their stress, anxiety, or depression because they believe, or think others will see it, as a sign of weakness.” In their leadership roles, executives may have pride about turning to others for help, have concerns about their privacy and reputation, worry about how people knowing about their mental distress could reflect on their ability to manage the company, feel pressured to conceal their vulnerabilities behind closed doors, or feel like their struggles are ‘first-world problems’ that they don’t deserve to complain about.

At the same time, executives also have fewer people watching over them, challenging them, or raising flags over their behavior. As leaders who are used to being in charge, they must also face the fact that they may not be 100% in control. With all of these factors at play, researchers have found that the C-Suite is likely to be depressed at double the rate of the general public. Further, C-Suite execs are 18% more likely to struggle with mental health issues than their employees.

The Impacts of Poor Mental Health in the C-Suite

According to SHRM, “Being a member of the C-suite can take a significant toll on a leader’s health and family life. This not only impacts the individual at home but can affect the way they show up at work, which in turn can affect employees and the entire organization.” Indeed, mental illness in the C-suite can impact your judgment and decision-making and delay execution, but it can also trickle down into the company. Your own stress, anxiety, or depression can have profound consequences on your top management, as well as their reports.

How Executives Can Address Mental Health

Good mental health can have positive impacts on both your personal and professional life, drive better business outcomes, and increase job satisfaction. Below are a few tips to get you started on improving your mental health.

Break through the notion that ‘self-neglect = success’

Hard work and even sacrifice exemplify the journey to the C-suite (and even the daily reality for many executives). We live in a ‘more-is-better’ society, and you read news articles about Elon Musk’s 120-hour work weeks and other CEOs priding themselves on their sleep deprivation. Excessive work hours, missing out on family gatherings, fewer hours of sleep, binging on junk food, and working on vacations are not and should not be badges of honor. Instead, embrace self-care and even the fine art of ‘strategic slacking off’. In the remote work world of almost-nonstop Zoom meetings, schedule short breaks do things you enjoy: watch a funny video, have a snack, go for a walk, play with your dog. When you are less stressed and less tired, you are able to gain more focus and clarity and ultimately be more productive and effective in your role.

Build your support network

One of the factors that prevents executives from seeking support is the stigma surrounding it. As a C-level executive, you may find yourself with a very limited peer group. In fact, it can feel quite lonely at the top. A study from Stanford Graduate School of Business found that nearly 2/3 of CEOs struggle with isolation. Reach out to trusted family, friends, and colleagues who you can lean on when you are feeling the pressure. Or consider joining a CEO support group – a non-judgmental, non-competitive group of trusted peers who can relate to your challenges and struggles, provide feedback, give advice, and hold you accountable.

Talk to a professional

You wouldn’t shy away from help if you broke your leg or had a heart attack, now would you? Speaking with an unbiased third-party can provide clarity and guidance. They can also help you assess your symptoms and determine an appropriate treatment plan.

Remember, mental illness is not a character flaw, a sign of weakness, or a reflection of management ability. And there is no shame in taking steps to improve your mental health. As a leader in the C-suite, you have worked hard to achieve success. Failing to address your stress, anxiety, depression, or other issues could derail that career that you worked so hard to build. Further, you want to model good behavior for employees and set a precedent for mental health acceptance in the workplace.

To learn more about how leaders and companies can proactively address mental health challenges, download this free best practice eBook: Actionable Strategies to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace.

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