Who is looking after the mental health of business leaders?

Thank you for the concern.
Thank you for the concern.
Image: Reuters/Lee Smith
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2020 is not the year anyone had planned, and the global pandemic has impacted all of us in different and complicated ways.

I know people who have reveled in the “The Great Pause,” having found time to get more rest and exercise and feel more relaxed after years of running around from place to place—the enforced break has done wonders for their stress levels. For others, and I would guess for a big majority of us, lockdown has felt like an endless uphill battle with little to no change of scenery.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists reported recently that 43% of UK psychiatrists have seen an increase in emergency and urgent cases and talked of a “tsunami” of referrals in the coming months. The pressure is rightly on employers to prioritize their people’s emotional well-being. But what about the pressure on business leaders and their mental health during this crisis?

Vulnerability isn’t always prized in a crisis

The role of a leader is a complicated one. We want leaders with authenticity, who are genuine, who don’t pretend to be robots bereft of feeling, but are actual humans who can admit their flaws. Leaders who talk openly about their mental health are, in my experience, widely praised for their honesty and contribute enormously to a more open, inclusive organizational culture.

But, in a time of crisis, what we look for in a leader often shifts.

Remember those first virtual company addresses when no one was sure what was going on, and we were only just learning how to navigate meetings à la Zoom? When everyone is worried about the world and about their own job security, we want leaders who are calm and cool in the face of pressure. If your company’s leadership team had appeared in those calls showing how they were really feeling (incredibly stressed, panicked, and very much winging it) how would that have gone down? Would you have felt your organization had things under control? Would you have faith that you had the best people on your leadership team?

I think it’s fair to say that for business leaders, the last few months have been pretty bloody difficult. Last time I checked, none of us had been through a global pandemic before.

Leading the shift in how entire organizations operate, in just a handful of days or even hours, is no easy task. Then came the slow dawn in early lockdown that this virus is going to be hanging around for quite a while, and the realizations about the financial impact it would have on businesses around the world, followed by the pressure from shareholders and holding companies to make painful staffing decisions that felt exceptionally cruel at such an awful time. Layer on top of that the task of trying to retain a company culture through the most uncertain and weird time—all while trying to project an image of poise and professionalism, so that everyone else can feel as though everything is fine and that you know exactly what you’re doing.

Sometimes leaders struggle, too

Just because you’re a leader, and maybe even a very well-paid one, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t struggled with the grief of losing someone to this awful virus. It doesn’t mean you’ve not had the pressure of balancing home-schooling with conference calls. It doesn’t mean you haven’t also felt suffocated by being stuck inside, or that you haven’t felt lonely or had screaming rows with your partner. It doesn’t mean that you don’t wake up most days feeling overwhelmed and unprepared for the role you’re in. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t living in fear about the security of your own job.

The irony is not lost on me that on several occasions, I have talked passionately to my colleagues about the importance of taking breaks, in the midst of sitting for 16 hours straight hunched over my laptop, eyes in pain from Zoom calls, having not left my flat for two days because my inbox never seems to stop pinging.

The irony is not lost on me when I urge managers to check in on their teams and find out how they really are, while pretending to my own boss when he asks how I’m doing that everything’s “fine,” as I choke back the tears. I have urged people to speak up if they’re struggling on the very mornings when I have struggled to get out of bed and face another day of putting out fires while battling the voice in my head telling me I am doing all of this wrong.

Leaders aren’t immune to bad days, or to self-doubt, or to mental health difficulties. For those of you who are leaders, don’t forget that there is nothing wrong with you if you are struggling with any of this. Listen to the advice you’ve been dishing out to everyone else these past few months and find some balance in your lives. And everyone else: Next time you have a conversation with someone senior in your business, why not ask how they really are? They’re likely to hugely appreciate it—and will show you, hopefully, that the concern is very much reciprocated.