Why CEOs need mental health support too

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Research suggests CEOs are more prone to mental health issues because of their particular character traits and psychological make-up

Stories surrounding entrepreneurs and CEOs typically involve romantic tales of bootstrapping, seven-digit salaries and hard-won success.

Think Tony Stark, the billionaire industrialist and genius inventor in Iron Man, who can indulge his every creativity in his home laboratory while his every whim (along with running his company) is catered for by fiercely-loyal assistant Pepper Potts.

The reality for CEOs couldn’t be further from this. Stark’s nearest real-life comparator Elon Musk has spoken openly about his gruelling 120-hour working weeks, acute stress and sleep deprivation. He told the New York Times he has barely taken time off since 2001. Lloyds Bank’s CEO talked about his experience of anxiety and stress, while CEO of Virgin Money Jayne-Anne Gadhia, says even talking about her depression felt “weak-minded” to her.

In one recent study into the mental health of 242 entrepreneurs, 49% reported struggling with a mental health condition.

All CEOs, not just entrepreneurs, suffer from anxiety to varying degrees and our mental wellness is under acute threat from many directions. There is no training course that tells you how to be a CEO – you learn on the job. And thanks to global markets and digital environments that job can easily fill your diary 24/7/365.

Researching his book, The Secrets of CEOs, Steve Tappin interviewed 150 leaders from across the globe. He found the vast majority were overworked, feeling constantly stressed and suffering from fatigue.

Hard work and immense sacrifice characterise the journey to becoming CEO and the daily reality. Yet to thrive we have to conceal our vulnerabilities. You ask how others are but no-one returns the question when you are a CEO.

CEOs desperately want to be perceived as strong, stable and in charge for the good of the company’s reputation. As the boss you know your moods are scrutinised 24/7 and can be infectious; affecting how you and your organisation are perceived.

Speaking personally, rising up and becoming a female leader attracts particular scrutiny and vitriol. You are expected to convey stereotypically female traits, such as warmth, that are not expected of men. Your appearance is assessed and commented upon constantly, as is your ability to balance home and work responsibilities.

Younger CEOs sometimes take pride in their extreme environments, unaware of the fact that self-neglect doesn’t contribute to success. Things like lack of sleep, poor diet, and untreated chronic stress all exacerbate existing mental health issues.

Other research suggests that CEOs are actually more prone to mental health issues because of the particular character traits and psychological make-up that drives us. We tend to be hyper-vigilant, always preparing for worst-case scenarios and our minds have a tendency to dart across several ideas or areas of responsibility simultaneously – which is great for the shareholders and trustees but wreaks havoc on our anxiety levels and ability to sleep.

Glossing over the toll of running a company on mental health is a disservice. It’s time we all address the psychological toll of leadership and management; not only for people currently in those roles but also to ensure we have sustainable succession.

We are more aware than ever of mental health and its role in society, and it has gradually become much easier to open up about our battles thanks to senior figures and even royals sharing their experiences.

At an organisational level companies should ensure that when recruiting and onboarding leaders they make sure there is support in place, whether that’s a coach, mentor, psychotherapist or go-to board member.

It’s been encouraging to see more CEOs talk openly about mental health. Talking about it is the only way to get better – the acknowledgement of it, and the ability to own it and be honest about it. Make sure you avail yourself of the professional options open to you through highly-qualified accredited psychotherapists.

It behoves organisations to ensure they have a rich developmental programme for staff that helps them learn, not just the nuts and bolts of management but also how to self-manage when the going gets tough. Self-care for future leaders is critical, the platform upon which your business rests.

Leaders with a platform must let a little bit more of themselves and their personal struggles come through. This will help to create a more open and nurturing culture to benefit all – business leaders and staff.

Sarah Niblock is chief executive of the UK Council of Psychotherapy

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