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World Mental Health Day - why business leaders are so vulnerable to mental illness in a fast-moving digital economy

By Cath Everett October 10, 2019
Dyslexia mode
Although rarely talked about, mental health issues are rife among company founders and leaders due to the risks they need to take and the stress they are constantly under. So what can they do to minimise the impact?

Stephen Bourke, co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of tech start-up Echo, believes in all seriousness and “without a shadow of a doubt” that anyone who sets up and runs a company suffers from mental illness.

Presenting at an event in London to mark World Mental Health Day - A healthy bottom line: Rethinking corporate health and wellbeing - Bourke, who has himself suffered from generalised anxiety disorder since his teenage years, indicated that he gave up stable and well-paid work to start his own company and take big risks – something he points out is “not a particularly sane course of action”, but rather a symptom of his condition, which makes it difficult to see such risks for what they are. He continues:

If you frame being a co-founder with that, you can see why so many things end up being chaotic. It’s the Mr Hyde side of your personality – you don’t take risks if it’s not there…. But I’ve not seen anyone at CEO level that hasn’t got mental health issues as it’s a high risk, high stress job.

And there are armfuls of statistics out there to back up what Bourke says, indicative of the pressures of operating in today's fast-paced digital business environment. For example, according to Guy Tolhurst, group CEO at investment company Indagate Group and founder of ‘The Mindful Investor’ kitemark programme, 53% of people building a business acknowledge it is one of the toughest times of their lives, with 45% saying they are under constant and extreme pressure.

Unsurprisingly then, 78% of people running a business recognise they are suffering from some kind of mental health challenge, such as stress, anxiety or depression, but sadly one in four ends up suffering in silence. A key problem, Tolhurst pointed out, is that:

Many founders mainly survive day-to-day, but it’s life-changing events, such as the birth of a child or losing someone, that can send them over the edge.

Not only can this situation be disastrous personally, but it is also not good for the business either, not least because the behaviour of senior leaders is mirrored by the rest of the workforce. As explained by Catherine de la Poer, founder of Halcyon Coaching and an executive leadership coach with tech executive search specialist 360Leaders which hosted the event, too much stress “kills innovation and performance”:

It takes us from competency to survival mode because the limbic system of the brain is triggered and so our logical and analytical capabilities diminish. But it kills empathy too, so when we’re highly stressed or depressed we’re also less empathetic, which is interesting in a tech ecosystem that focuses on collaboration. So we really need to start normalising the conversation around mental health.

Value of human relationships

But this lack of discussion about the issue is also not helped, in the tech world at least, by the fact that so many common mental health role models, which include Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax, come from an arts rather than a science background. As Bourke said:

“You don’t see those role models in business. The nearest we got was the Lloyds Bank CEO, who said he was taking time off work due to fatigue, but that opportunity was squandered. Members of the 360Leaders network all know what’s happening, but there’s no transparency at the middle management level so other people have no idea what the real situation is and so don’t learn from it - leaders go on holiday or take compassionate leave and people just don’t know.

To make matters worse, while most company founders and CEOs tend to spend more time working than they should to the detriment of their relationship with family and friends, gaining support from these relationships is actually one of the most helpful things they can do to maintain good mental health. As de la Poer pointed out:

The quality of human relationships is one of the most positive identifiers for mental wellbeing, which goes back to the earliest days of man, when we operated in groups as it was important for our survival.

Stephen Waterman, Chief Operating Officer at wellbeing platform and services provider Hero, agreed:

Loneliness kills people…in fact, a 75-year-long Harvard University study on happiness found that real happiness comes about from being connected with other people. It was the only significant factor it found.

The problem is that when things go wrong, many founders and senior leaders do not feel able to confide in the people they are close to, which includes partners and colleagues, as they often have a lot invested in the success of the business too.

Alternative support options do exist though. These include networking with other entrepreneurs and leaders as well as employing the services of mentors, coaches or therapists. Tolhurst has also established a workplace buddying programme for people across all levels of his organisation to ensure they check in with each other on a daily basis, with buddies being swapped out quarterly to enable them to get to know colleagues in other departments.

Nurturing mental wellbeing

Other contributory factors that make a difference to senior leaders’ personal wellbeing, meanwhile, include having a generally optimistic attitude, knowing how to ask for help and feeling a sense of purpose in what they do beyond monetary gain, according to de la Poer.

Part of establishing this sense of purpose involves defining what success means to you as an individual potentially by using techniques, such as meditation, as a means of taking time out to reflect. James McErlean, general manager at meditation app provider Headspace for Work, explained the rationale:

“There is science behind it. There are thousands of studies on meditation and mindfulness, and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) is useful in a proactive way too. Universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Yale, have all used Headspace to test reactions and see if it helps reduce anxiety and depression, and they’ve found that meditating for just 10 minutes three days a week makes a marked difference.

As a result, the whole company stops work twice a day to allow staff to meditate should they wish to – “they don’t have to but it’s encouraged” – and it is now starting to introduce the concept of “compassionate leadership” as a key tenet.

This approach involves leaders not just treating their employees with compassion but also themselves too. In a twist on the Dalai Lama’s famous quote: “If you want to be happy, practice compassion”, McErlean indicated:

It’s about being aware of yourself and understanding that your thoughts and feelings may be negative sometimes, and being compassionate about that.

Ultimately though, Tolhurst believes that positive behaviours for mental wellbeing can be summed up in seven short maxims:

  1. Regular exercise for willpower.
  2. Healthy eating for energy.
  3. Enough sleep for patience.
  4. Meeting family and friends for happiness.
  5. Solitude for clarity.
  6. Training and coaching for skills.
  7. Holiday for perspective.

My take

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2018 ‘Health at a Glance’ report, mental ill health costs the countries of the Europe Union about 4% of GDP each year, the equivalent of €600 billion, ($659 billion) mainly due to lower productivity and employment rates.

But how the issue affects company founders and leaders is rarely discussed, despite the fact that it is they who shape the organisational culture and their behaviour that sets an example for others to follow. However if, what Bourke says is correct and most are suffering from mental health problems, the big question is how can they possibly nurture a healthy workplace environment in which others can thrive? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

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