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The mind of the head matters: why you need a top down approach to mental health


Mental health and wellbeing is an on-trend topic for businesses. However, it needs looking at from a different perspective. A physically and mentally healthy workforce is paramount to business success. But we’re overlooking the crux: it needs to come from the top.


And life at the top can be tough. It can come with distinct mental health challenges. The research is staggering. 50% of respondents to an Institute of Directors survey experienced poor mental health which was, at least in part, linked to work pressures.


A Bupa Global study uncovered that 58% of business leaders say that it’s hard to talk about mental health because of their position, with 1 in 4 saying they feel there is less support for mental health issues the more senior you become.


The same study found that an eye-watering 64% of senior business leaders have suffered from mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Some studies show that executives have double the rate of depression compared to the general population.


It appears that whilst we are collectively doing a better job of recognising and responding to mental health concerns in employees (with a long way to go), we’re really facing a taboo of mental health at the executive level.


The general consensus at the helm is to grit your teeth for fear that you’ll be a poor leader or affect your career potential.


But battling through isn’t actually the answer.


Tom Blomfield, CEO and Founder of challenger bank Monzo has recently announced his decision to step down due to the mental health pressures of his role. COVID-19 brought it to a head, with the company needing to cut staff and make radical changes.


Blomfield’s honesty opens the door for us to really discuss and challenge our approach to mental wellbeing in the executive team.


But actually, this isn’t new. Back in 2011, Lloyds Banking Group CEO António Horta-Osório took an extended leave of absence due to fatigue and burnout.


We need to address the issue head on and head down.


Why is mental health an executive level problem?

Leadership is hard work, with its own unique and isolating challenges.


As figureheads, executives need to appear to be strong, capable and almost superhuman. Stress is simply seen as part of the job. It’s seen as the motivator and the driver of creativity. Simply, we work better, more innovatively and productively when stressed, to a degree.


But it’s a fine balance between motivating pressure and stress that leads to burn-out.


A good work-life balance at the executive level is often seen in a poor light. A culture of presenteeism at all levels means the executive team certainly can’t be seen to be shirking their time commitments. This makes it harder to stave off mental health problems through good self-care. Admitting vulnerability is seen as a weakness.


On a very practical level, most Articles of Association state that a Director can be removed if medically declared incapable of making decisions due to either physical or mental health.


So, what can we do about executive mental health?


Taking a head down approach to mental wellbeing in the workplace

Making improvements to employee mental wellbeing isn’t a quick process and the same applies when we look at executive mental health.


But incorporating these different aspects into our businesses will ensure we do more to help executives whilst getting the best from them, and also combatting the £33-£42 billion bill that poor mental health at work is costing us.


▪ Mental health is for all

Move beyond just supporting employees and instead ‘show the way’ with mental health at work. Uptake of mental health support can be enhanced simply by a leader showing that they themselves aren’t immune to needing it. These mental health strategies should focus on building resilience through self-care.


▪ Recognise problems in the pipeline

Alison Charles of the IoD points out that it’s usually family members who point out brewing mental health problems in business leaders. Instead, executive teams should look out for each other, helping to recognise when stressful times are becoming detrimental. Mental health check-ins should be a core part of supportive leadership.


▪ Recognise the warning signs in yourself

All leaders experience stress. What matters is when it tips over into being too much. Leaders need to be able to take their own mental wellbeing temperature. Look at things like sleeping patterns and if they have changed, ability to concentrate and a sense of being overwhelmed to identify if a problem is brewing.


▪ Get and accept help

The impact on the business, and on your reputation, will be worse if crisis point is reached. Accepting help prior to this point is far from a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength and good leadership. Get help and support either through Employee Assistance Programmes or privately.


▪ Shape a safe mental health culture

As a leader, your role in cultural development of the business is instrumental. In times of good mental health, ensure that you work constructively to build a company culture that recognises and supports the mental wellbeing of your employees and colleagues. Mental wellbeing should start around the board table.


▪ Recognise that flawless leaders aren’t always the best

It’s a misconception that we need flawless leaders. What we need are leaders who recognise their flaws and combat these through bringing on board help and support. In fact, it’s often the flawed leaders who are authentic that inspire others.


▪ Take some small steps

Particularly when external pressures (such as home-working with the pandemic) exacerbate stress, look creatively at solutions that work for reducing your stress. Back to back video calls are inevitably more stressful than meeting in person, so build in more screen-free time, up your self-care, and reduce pressure where you can, for example.


Businesses need strong, healthy and resilient leaders. That doesn’t happen when you ignore mental health issues, but rather when they are supported into a place of mental wellbeing.


It pays off because mentally healthy leaders are inspiring and productive leaders who create a mentally healthy workforce in turn.

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