Like any other human, even though you may be a high achiever. A business leader, it’s likely you will experience emotional, relational and psychological problems at some point in your professional life. To some extent you may even experience these issues to a greater level due to your unique life stressors. A counsellor and coach with my own bespoke program, I work with clients who have already got their life together, high achievers, usually business leaders in senior executive roles. I advocate self-care as a preventative to well-being and stress management. Mental health does not discriminate by rank or title and I am very much on a mission to promote the well-being and mental health of business leaders.

As a high achiever, you may well spend your entire work life devoted to managing: managing work, managing resources, managing people, managing information, even managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of your workforce but more often than not managing your own mental health and well-being is the last on your priority list. Sound familiar?

Being a business leader is extremely hard work and often requires immense sacrifice. And yet even though mental health policy within corporate culture is progressive, the chances are that the focus on mental health within your organisation primarily supports employees rather than those holding senior management positions. There are many assumptions made about executives in top-tier managerial roles, expected more often than not to be more resilient than is humanly possible. Feeling pressure to appear to be “superhuman”.

Business leaders are of course not excluded from mental illness and certainly not from stress. In fact, the shocking truth is you are statistically at a larger risk of experiencing mental health conditions. CEO pathologies and personalities research reveals that many of the world’s entrepreneurs have struggled with a lifetime of mental illness. People who make it to the top of their profession have often done so because of their personality profile and psychological issues, not despite them. In her published review Fear, Anger, and Depression: The Interior Lives of Corporate Leaders, Jayne W. Barnard points out that studies have shown CEOs may be depressed at more than double the rate of their employees.

In his book Moppin’ Floors to CEO, Miller states that “High-powered individuals often do not want to admit vulnerability, and depression as this is unfortunately viewed as a weakness.” Living up to “Superhman” status makes it hard for high achievers to reach out for support, disconnecting them sometimes from family, friends and colleagues. ‘Leadership loneliness’ is a validated concept. Research prior to the pandemic concluded that 30% of top-tier management executives felt isolated. Another survey states that as many as 50% of all CEOs experience feelings of loneliness in their role. Examining the interactions between leadership and loneliness, clinical psychologist, Ami Rokach, says that leaders (educational, state, business, and organisational) endure stress, alienation, loneliness, and emotional turmoil and that this combination can lead to health problems, as well as negatively affect social and family relationships.

According to a survey by Vistage (an international organisation for CEOs), 100% of 2,400 participating CEOs reported suffering from stress. CEO stress may be the root of external sources, such as an uncertain economy as well as work-life in-balance. Stress, while a great motivator, can disable thinking and creativity, which are the keys to leadership. Stress can also harm our mental and physical health and emotions. Realistically of course, part of being in a business leadership role such as CEO is learning how to manage stress.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified stress as the global health epidemic of the 21st century, and work-related stress has been linked to heart disease. In the US. alone, stress is estimated to cost the American economy $300 billion annually.

The “quantified self-movement”, is here to embrace. Technology and fitness trackers are a great way to closely measure your health metrics to improve your physical, mental and emotional performance. But converting data is a guideline for recommendation, and mental health and stress have many faces. Stress and mental health invoke very different physical and psychological responses in each of us. To manage stress effectively we need to mindfully learn and accept the ways it manifests in each of us individually. Taking time to really observe how stress makes you feel and how it may be impacting your interactions and relationships is an investment.

Although there are no studies yet specifically focused on the prevalence of executives with mental illness and co-occurring addiction, clinicians believe that executives as a group may be particularly prone to psychological distress and self-medication for both lifestyle and personality reasons. Mental health disorders and addiction often go hand-in-hand, but their prevalence amongst executives may be particularly high due to the unique path co-occurrence takes for this population. Unfortunately, executives may also be especially likely to avoid treatment by hiding behind their success, keeping them from getting the help they need.

A busy work schedule with poor work-life balance can leave little room for basic self-care activities such as exercise, good nutrition, forging meaningful personal relationships, and simply having downtime. Lack of self-care in turn can compound pre-existing emotional distress and leave vulnerability for substance abuse. An unhealthy lifestyle can lead to habits such as addiction, managing stress short term rather than carving out meaningful space for self-care and working through deeper-rooted issues such as anxiety disorders and depression.

Who Can Business Leaders Talk To?

The many skills required to be a business leader are complex, managing great highs, disappointing lows and relentless stress. It can be hard to find someone to talk to or share the burden with within your organisation. This often comes up for me when I work with clients in senior management. At its core, there is still such a huge stigma attached to business leaders being transparent about their own stress and mental health unfortunately. Concerned that being open will adversely affect both their current role and career prospects. This perhaps makes sense as to why so many CEOs are likely to conceal their stress levels. Many preferring to seek help independently. Self-care monitoring should be a leadership priority task regularly evaluated.

Long hours, dedication and senior management pressure are all inevitable in the role of being a business leader. In fact, a considerable volume of research suggests that working under pressure brings out the best in us all. Frequently interchanged, pressure can be positive and is a motivating factor and is often essential in helping business leaders carry out their role, particularly when something needs to be done quickly. It can help you at your very best, achieve your intentions, make good choices and perform better. Stress occurs when pressure becomes excessive. Excessive stress is detrimental to the productivity of any great business leader.

The Williams Pressure Performance Curve (1994) is often cited when discussing pressure at work. According to the Williams Curve, we work at our best in the ‘Stretch’ zone, which tests our knowledge, skills and stamina over a defined period of time, after which we reflect and recharge. Beyond the stretch zone lie two negative working states ‘Strain’ is marked by fatigue, poor judgement and poor decision-making. Personal productivity and effectiveness – which peak in the Stretch zone – both decline in the Strain zone. The next stage is ‘Overwhelmed’, in which physical and/or mental health symptoms will become more acute. In business culture, overwhelmed is a precursor to ‘burnout’ – a non-medical description of physical and mental collapse to which driven high-achievers are prone.

Have You Reached Stress Peak?

Your sleeping habits have deteriorated

You are feeling overwhelmed, unable to cope with the most basic of tasks that previously you would manage with ease

You find it increasingly harder to focus and make decisions

your heart rate regularly increases and you feel sick, sweating excessively

You feel out of sync but can’t articulate why

Good quality sleep makes a huge difference to your day. Poor sleep long term can affect your mental health, short term sleep deprivation prevents the brain from creating order and logic. Good sleep increases productivity and should be a priority for every senior executive. Amazon’s Founder Jeff Bezos admits that while it can be sometimes impossible, he prioritises eight hours of sleep 5 days a week. There’s a proven link between effective leadership and getting enough sleep. Harvard conducted a survey and found that of more than 180 business leaders four out of 10 (43%) say they did not get enough sleep at least four nights a week. Sleep deficiency can undermine important forms of leadership behaviour and eventually impact organisational performance. In a nutshell, quality sleep should be an important factor for every business leader’s self-care program.

Organisations are coming around to the idea that as they invest in well-being their senior management sharing personal stories and being transparent can be empowering. A business that commits to the emotional welfare of its employees will reap many benefits. Absence is lower, productivity is higher. CEOs and their senior management getting this support can also expect to maintain consistency and perform better in their roles.

According to a report conducted by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, over 650 CEOs left their jobs in 2022. 70% of high-level executives are considering quitting their roles, largely to improve their emotional well-being. Choosing to leave major companies and taking less demanding jobs so that they can have a better standard of life overall, pursuing a more balanced life over financial gain. Executive retention could be a serious issue in the future for many organisations unless they take steps to implement self-care programs.

During the pandemic, 81% of the global workforce began working from home. And working remotely, made us all feel just this, isolated and remote. Suddenly our choice to feel and be connected wasn’t a choice. Affecting us profoundly and impacting the way we will work, live and connect for decades to come.

Researchers at the University of Maastricht confirmed what we already know. Social relationships not only benefit our well-being but also provide a crucial buffering and stress-absorbing effect. Each organisation has its own unique requirements to consider, but I believe the most successful companies during the transition of this post-pandemic will be those that facilitate effective stress management and mental health policy for their senior management. It’s from close, meaningful relationships both personally and professionally that we draw our best inspiration and most innovative work. Feeling connected to ourselves and other humans. The Hu::Be model takes a human-centred approach. Working with clients who are high achievers, and business leaders. Focusing on personal growth and fulfilment, this model recognises that as humans we are all looking for new ways to grow, to become better, to learn new skills in our job and experience psychological growth and self-actualisation no matter how much success we have already achieved. Your personalised Hu::Be program will allow you to transition on a journey to self-discovery that will enhance both your personal and professional development.

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