Your Mind At Work//

The Truth About Leadership and Mental Health

Leaders can face unique challenges when it comes to addressing their mental health. Here’s how to transcend the stigma.

seksan Mongkhonkhamsao / Getty Images
seksan Mongkhonkhamsao / Getty Images

When someone struggles with a mental health challenge, they’re not the only one affected by it. Their families and friends — and their coworkers — may feel the impact. I sat down with Deborah Miscoll, Psy.D., a psychologist and Managing Director at Deloitte to talk about mental health in the workplace. In this conversation, we discussed the unique challenges that leaders face in seeking treatment and support for mental health conditions.

Jen Fisher: Why does mental illness seem like such a taboo subject for leaders?

Deborah Miscoll: People with mental health challenges often face stigmas. But imagine if your challenge could impact a wider circle than just your family and friends. Imagine if it wasn’t just a concern about your performance on a particular project — but on your ability to lead a team, a division, or even a company. For those in leadership positions, it takes a strong person to brave the world’s judgment and seek treatment for something as personal as a mental health issue.

Now, the truth is, leaders can struggle with mental health issues just like the rest of us. And the high levels of stress they experience in their roles may make them even more susceptible. At the same time, there may be more pressure on them to hide a condition, given the notability of leadership roles. But not talking about it doesn’t help anyone; not dealing with it certainly doesn’t help the person at risk — or their families or companies.

JF: It all comes back to education, doesn’t it? The more we talk about mental health challenges, the more we educate everyone about them, the more we bust up the old myths and eradicate stigmas, the better off we’ll all be.

DM: I think the tide is turning. We’re seeing that mental health challenges can affect everyone. We’re having more public conversations around the issues and how we can support people who face these challenges — and their caregivers.

But at the end of the day, many leaders still feel as if their position could be undermined if they were revealed to have a mental health challenge. They think they’d lose credibility, or negatively impact the company and their brand. The higher you climb up the corporate ladder, the bigger an issue it can become. It’s understandable that these concerns can arise, but not addressing it also is a really poor long-term strategy.

JF: What can people in leadership positions do if they feel they have a mental health challenge?

DM: You have to get over the mindset that you can “tough it out.” If something’s off, hiding from it won’t help. Challenge whatever internal biases you carry about seeking help, take accountability, and find yourself a licensed mental health clinician. Often companies have a confidential support system for their leaders that can help them navigate the health care system and get the treatment they need.

I’ve had people come to me and say, “I’ve had your name on my desk for a year, but I haven’t been able to make the call until today.” It took the leader that long to overcome the fear and anxiety of being “outed.” Another person told me they finally picked up the phone because “I was going to die if I didn’t get help.” Imagine if that person hadn’t overcome the fear and called. I’ve never had someone regret calling me; usually they regret not having called me sooner.  

JF: What can the people around a leader do to create an atmosphere that isn’t so “lonely at the top”?

The leader sets the tone for the organization. So if they are working 120 hours a week and ignoring their outside life, that will likely trickle down to the rest of the organization. But if the leader prioritizes self-care, then others in the organization likely will too. And we’ve seen how the behaviors that cultivate well-being are the same behaviors that can help to mitigate mental health challenges. Lots of organizations have health and well-being programs, but if the leader isn’t modeling the behavior, the workforce won’t either.

When it comes to removing the stigma around mental health, if that comes from the top of the organization as well, then it will take root in the whole culture. It helps the leader who might need to step away for a while and employees at every level who face their own mental health challenges. Workers need the same safety to seek treatment and support.

JF: Bottom line: It’s good business to take care of your leader’s mental health.

DM: Yes — and everyone else’s as well.

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