The challenges faced by those in senior roles, business owners and founders are often very different, and different strategies may be required to manage wellbeing and build resilience, to hopefully avoid mental health issues in the first place.
The possible consequences for an executive if the issue is not managed and treated?
The impact of poor mental health in the workplace can vary and includes physical illness, mental illness, impact on relationships and family, drug and alcohol addiction and more serious conditions and reactions, including suicide.
Work related stress is a common cause of someone seeking treatment for mental health issues but that might not be where it ends. One can easily see the potential impact on personal relationships may be huge, which in turn can impact mental wellbeing. Stress can affect everyone differently but I come across many people who report that when stressed about something at work, they disengage from the situation they may be in, often a family dinner or time with a partner or friends. They may be physically there, but mentally, they are a world away ruminating on whatever is causing them stress or anxiety at work. Professor Pieter Kruger, a registered consultant psychologist and professor of clinical psychology and a Director at Cognacity, explains that this is “affective rumination, meaning, in short, you can’t stop thinking about work problems and therefore your body keeps on secreting the stress hormone, cortisol, which makes you feel anxious and stressed most of the time”.
Kruger talks of a job demands, resources and control model. He advises that “it is not just volume, but the difficulty of the work an executive has to deal with, including the emotional load, which can, for example, be increased when making difficult decisions. Kruger says that resources also play a role, “including lack of physical resources, employee relationships, remuneration and organisational culture”. More control may alleviate stress for some, and typically as someone progresses, and especially if they are a founder, they will gain more control, but with that often a much greater workload and greater need to make difficult and business critical decisions. Kruger says that “analysing these three factors allow us to better assess the stressors likely to affect a senior executive’s wellbeing and resilience.”
Kruger’s comments highlight an important issue: stress is not static and changes as someone progresses through their career for a number of reasons. So, the types of issues, problems and events which cause someone stress when they are starting out in their chosen career, are usually very different to those which cause them stress as a senior executive and founder.
In the vast majority of organisations, the basis for progression is by way of reward or recognition for being very capable at the role, for example, a lawyer who is very good at winning work, giving legal advice and winning cases will progress in their firm, and be rewarded with promotion and pay increases. With that, comes associated heightened responsibility and challenges according to Joydeep Hor, founder and managing principal of People and Culture Strategies, a law firm providing management consultancy and leadership development services in labour and employment law in Australia. “As you progress you are expected to mentor and guide employees. It is no surprise that causes leaders stress and anxiety. There are a number of additional issues a leader will have to deal with, and will be expected to be adept at dealing with. In addition to managing and leading people, founders and senior executives will be expected to understand the financial, strategic and commercial issues in a business.” According to Hor, while as a leader you can provide resources by way of programmes and courses, and on the job training, that does not necessarily alleviate the stress. As a leader and founder himself, he comments that “founders experience an additional suite of stressors, all those which a senior executive must deal with, plus that fact that it is your livelihood and your business”.
Issues arising from high pressure work environments, reluctance to discuss mental health and lack of support affect all employees including senior executives and founders, in addition to the issues discussed above. The fear of admitting and talking about mental health does not go away because someone progresses in their role, in fact, it probably gets harder. Elaine Aarons, partner in employment law at Withersworldwide says “people worry about stigma, and that others won’t have faith that they can recover sufficiently to resume their senior role”.
Another contributor to mental health issues in the workplace is the constant connectivity and correlating increased demand for responsiveness and out of “normal working hours” (if that remains a concept) working. I often wonder how the leaders of today will be coping in 20 years’ time, when they will no doubt still be working. The leaders who came before us spent a large proportion of their careers receiving letters in the post, faxes and telephone calls. Even when I started practising law in 2005, a Blackberry was a novelty and we were excited to be issued with one, it didn’t mean, even then, that we were expected to answer an email at 10pm, 11pm and beyond unless truly time critical but now, expectations seem to have shifted. For some executives, there is an expectation, whether that is external or self-imposed, to be immediately responsive, and what that constant connectivity and inability to ever truly switch off will do to our wellbeing, remains to be seen, as those who have worked their whole careers with that technology and the pace and connectivity it brings progress into more senior and demanding roles.
Aarons comment that there are demands over and above technology, “international travel can be very disruptive to sleep patterns and relationships and is an issue that often doesn’t seem solvable to executives.”
I know when I travel, when I arrive, whether that is at the destination or back in the U.K., my expectation of myself is that I will hit the ground running, need no extra downtime and slip seamlessly into a new time zone. I have however realised that while you can keep going for a short period after long haul travel, it catches up with you, and it is just not that easy to traverse multiple time zones and keep going as usual – but it is very hard not to at least try. I know I am by no means alone amongst my colleagues and the wider population.
Executives will also deal frequently with multiple different tasks a day, switching between meetings, personal appointments, emails, calls, drafting documents, financial decision making, business networking and more. For brains which weren’t designed to multi-task, according to Kruger, that can add to the stress. As humans, we did not evolve to do what we are doing now, is it therefore any surprise that the pressures seem to be having an adverse impact on the wellbeing and resilience of some senior executives and founders?
Strategies for managing wellbeing and resilience
For organisations, they must be aware of the risks, including that those who seem resilient, may be struggling. Put in place support for your most senior executives as you do for all employees. Their challenges may be different, the solutions are likely to be different, but the pressures on your most senior people cannot be underestimated. As an added risk, they may be the ones least likely to ask for help or admit to being unwell. Also, as Aarons comments, “set the tone from the top and make a genuine commitment to the wellbeing of those in business”.
As for founders, that is harder. With mental health issues often being hard to identify, and often particularly so to self-identify, founders should be mindful of the risks, and put in place for themselves the support they would for those they employ.
Hor’s advice is to encourage leaders to be aware of their personal strengths and weaknesses and also, to not fear failure and accept that as a senior executive, “you will suffer defeats, and embracing these will build resilience.”