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We Can’t Talk About CEOs and Mental Health
CEOs are vaccinated to prevent mental health issues. The success that comes from leading an organization makes them superhuman when it comes to their own mental challenges. Being the leader of an organization protects them and makes them invulnerable to conditions that impact one in five of the rest of humanity. It is easy for CEOs to admit they need help and not be judged by the public, their employees, or their board. Balderdash! Of course these are all false statements.
I was watching an interview with Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, this morning. He said that in 2014, in the wake of his success, he faced one of his darkest moments. He stayed in his home for five days and contemplated suicide. With the façade of success often comes extreme loneliness and isolation.
CEOs and Executive Directors can feel extremely lonely at the top of the organizations they lead. People expect them to have it “all together” all of the time. This only exacerbates the pressure and increases the likelihood to withdraw into their minds. We are in the fourth quarter and year end results are becoming evident. The holidays are approaching. This can be the perfect storm for executives that feel under pressure to perform all of the time. The bright spotlight from being CEO or ED only makes the experience more intense. They feel the weight of the entire organization on their shoulders.
Mental health discussions are needed more than ever for top organizational leaders. A study from UC San Francisco revealed that 30 percent of entrepreneurs experience some form of mental health issue. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that only 7 percent of the general population deals with depression. The ups and downs from business make it likely that most business founders experience depression or suicidal thoughts from time to time.
Life in the pressure cooker as the chief decision maker is not easy. Social media and everyone else’s perfect life is on display 24 hours a day. We are constantly pressured by the image of stability and success we see in others. It can lead to the question, “what’s wrong with me?”
The stigma must be addressed openly and often. As someone that’s dedicated his life to helping leaders, I have moved this discussion to front of the line. My role is not therapeutic (I am not a licensed counselor) however it is about helping leaders overcome the judgement and fear of being human. The intense pressure and unpredictability that comes with the job needs an outlet. Be it in individual coaching or group sessions, comfort comes with repetition. Teaching leaders to be comfortable with vulnerability makes them more likely to be self-aware when mental struggles surface.
The good news is times are changing. According to Inc. Magazine, 32 percent of CEOs now work with an executive coach. 22 percent see a therapist. 93 percent meet regularly with other CEOs/EDs weekly or monthly. We must avoid the urge to withdraw when we are struggling.
The challenge comes from understanding the difference between networking and effective group dynamics. The wrong group can make things worse. A group that is not facilitated properly can lead to a “brag fest” where everyone compares success and avoids deep and meaningful discussions. If everyone is superficial, it can be awkward to bring up challenges, especially mental issues. Someone, often the facilitator, must model vulnerability for others to follow. The group must be willing to ask difficult questions to get to the real issues facing leaders. It is not easy and it takes time to build the trust necessary to be open among peers.
Studies show men are more likely to underreport mental issues compared to female counterparts. However, the same study revealed that women are more likely to suffer depression as they gain more job authority. This indicates that gender diversity among peer groups benefit members significantly. Another study reported by Jayne Barnard stated that CEOs may be depressed at greater than double the rate of the general public.
The bottom line is that being the chief decision maker is difficult physically and mentally. Without someone to share the darkest thoughts (I call them mental gremlins) it is exponentially more likely to impact our mental health at some point. A strong support network is a non-negotiable for any CEO that is completely honest. Keep in mind the average peer may be “as uncomfortable” bringing up the issue as you are talking about it. It takes practice and trust to become effective at probing below the surface with the peers you care about.