Strength and vulnerability

Leadership and the mental health taboo

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Being a leader in today’s competitive corporate environment can take its toll on one’s mental wellbeing, but early identification of risk factors and honest self-reflection can be a literal lifesaver
There is a silent epidemic spreading through the corporate world. Complex, expensive, often subtle and sometimes deadly, it remains shrouded in stigma and misconception. Costing the local economy approximately R40 billion annually and affecting roughly 16.5 % of the adult population in South Africa, those at the top are far from exempt from its pervasive reach.

Mental health is a topic that is frequently avoided in the corporate world. Prejudice, silence and stigma have cast a cloud of shame that often leaves those suffering in a state of denial and avoidance. According to a 2017 survey conducted by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), only one in six employees with mental illness said that they were comfortable with disclosing their condition to their managers. Those at the top can sometimes, however, feel more isolated than most.

October is Mental Health Awareness Month in South Africa and World Mental Health Day is celebrated on the 10th every year. The World Health Organization defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. It further outlines mental health as a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

Individuals in positions of leadership can be especially prone to sidestep the topic due to the importance of their role and image. Ever heard of the acronym VUCA? It refers to a global environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. With job security being under threat in a world that is becoming ever more competitive, appearing weak or mentally unwell is the last thing you’d want to be associated with as a leader. Fortunately, the days of having to live up to strongman ideals in the business world are giving way to an era where we have started talking about things like emotional intelligence, wellness and shared responsibility. There is, however, still a long road ahead.

Mental health problems encompass a wide spectrum of behaviours and disorders. In South Africa, the most prevalent of these include depression, anxiety, substance use and mood disorders. Treating mental health problems can also take time and requires commitment. It is typically said that prevention is better than cure and when it comes to dealing with mental health in the business world, the adage certainly applies. In mental health circles, reference is made to primary, secondary and tertiary prevention.

Primary prevention focusses on policy, immunisation and education that seeks to prevent problems before they start, while secondary prevention is focused on reducing the impact of already existing problems. Finally, tertiary treatment involves long-term treatment, rehabilitation and the management of illness or injury. In the business world, all the above prevention types are necessary to combat mental health problems, but an emphasis on early identification and the handling of risk factors remain vital.

The age-old cliché goes: it’s tough at the top. Without a doubt, one of the biggest risk factors associated with mental health problems among corporate leaders is professional stress. Those in leadership positions typically occupy complex roles that, while dependent on the kind of industry they are in, can involve being accountable to, among others, shareholders, clients and sometimes even the public. Add to this the competitiveness of the corporate arena and the performance demands that accompany it and one begins to understand the toll these roles often take.

Carole Spiers, the chair of the International Stress Management Association, says when it comes to top-tier individuals like directors, there is a high expectation on them to manage everything. She has found that very often, these individuals do not want to share their feelings because they have to appear strong. Even in cases where they were clearly feeling under the weather, they felt compelled to live up to the image of having to deliver.

According to Spiers, many chief executives have confided in her that they are experiencing panic attacks and high anxiety levels, but are unsure how to manage it.

“They understand they need to make time for themselves but they don’t allow themselves the opportunity to do it. Some have a need to be needed. They wonder if they can go on holiday. Sometimes I have to ask, ‘If you died tomorrow, would the business continue in your absence?’ for them to realise that they’re not dealing [properly] with the dangers of tiredness and exhaustion.

“One sought help only after his children pointed out that he couldn’t even play a board game without holding his mobile phone in his hand. I can’t tell you how many Type A, hard-driving people ignore the stress responses. They are the people who say, ‘Carole, it’s never going to happen to me.’ You get into this CEO status where you think you are untouchable, but your body is still just a body, whether you are a CEO or a first-jobber,” she says.

The theme of World Mental Health Day 2018 was: Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World. With a large number of university students entering the corporate world every year, addressing and creating awareness around mental health at an early age can have a significant impact on our future leaders’ attitude toward the subject. A recent international study entitled WHO World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Project: Prevalence and Distribution of Mental Disorders, involving both the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University, looked at mental illness among university students in eight different countries: Australia, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Spain and the United States.

Overall, the results showed that of the 13 984 students who were surveyed, 35% indicated positive to the at least of the mental disorders with a lifetime prevalence. (? Is this correct? Not sure what it means) Major depressive disorder (MDD) was the most common disorder reported (21.2% lifetime prevalence) followed by generalised anxiety disorder (18.6% lifetime prevalance). From the South African sample, 36.1% of surveyed students indicated positive to a lifetime prevalence mental disorder. (?)

Janine Roos, the Director at the Mental Health Information Centre of Southern Africa, told Leadership that, “University students are the professionals of tomorrow and will most likely find themselves in the corporate world after their studies.

These findings present a major challenge to universities’ mental health services that are trying their best to create awareness around mental health/disorders and to improve access to services. Creating awareness of mental health issues should be a combined effort of parents, family and tertiary institutions.”

According to Roos, mental health professionals further agree that the work environment has a significant impact on an individual’s wellbeing and health. “Every individual should, in the first place, take ownership for his or her own mental and physical wellbeing to be able to work productively and to thrive. Companies should develop appropriate prevention and mental health promotion policies to address mental wellbeing in the workplace such as stress management, time management, personal support, employee assistance, occupational health, burnout prevention, to name a few,” she says.

Dr David Cliff, the Managing Director of Gedanken who has extensive experience in coaching leaders in the business world, highlights the domino effect that the neglect of mental wellness of corporate leaders can have on organisations, “Whilst encouraging support, development and mental health care is essential for all staff, it’s particularly important that those at the top do not neglect their own. Failure to do this will result in denial, avoidance, and practices that can be toxic as they filter down through the organisation.”

Understanding mental health as part of a holistic mind-body-spirit construct is also imperative and leaders who prioritise health-promoting activities such as exercise and good sleeping habits report a significant reduction in overall stress and increased wellness and productivity. In a study by the Australian-based ThriveCentral, 480 finance sector leaders and managers were asked to name the biggest causes of their declining mood: 60% cited a lack of quality sleep while 65% named insufficient exercise.

So, what will it take for our business leaders to come out of the closet on this taboo subject? It might sound like a paradox, but one might see the act of opening up and being vulnerable as a sign of courage and intelligence. Taking the first step can be as simple as asking yourself whether you are ready to be honest with the man or woman in the mirror. 

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