Mental health has had a bigger focus since Covid-19. 

Companies were forced to shut, while some small businesses clocked very little growth, and some companies had to reduce their workforces to mitigate losses.

While companies were undertaking such losses, the major brunt of it was not only faced by their employees but also their leaders.

They had to juggle with informing members being laid off or furloughed in one hand, and working long hours at home in different rooms with family members in the other.

Apart from adapting to new ways of meeting clients, and team members, they had to hold together their team without losing it. It is no surprise companies started taking mental health seriously.

Lonely at the top and are you braving up?

Leaders are expected to have it all together. At some level, this is sad and a tremendous burden to carry. For chief executives and senior leaders, the range of stressors is from managing a smooth-running company to having a good work-life balance to bringing in big money to managing tough markets.

Their biggest stress and fear at times is that of failure.

Depending on where they live, it seems difficult for leaders to speak about their troubles. This is why the saying ‘It is lonely at the top’. For example, in India, we are expected to ‘man up’ and swallow our problems by distracting ourselves from doing something worth our time.

In China and Korea, there is a concept of “losing one’s ‘face” if you show weakness. If you are a woman leader then come through only as strong and capable, there is no space for anything else.

Some of the main issues due to declining mental health in leaders are anxiety disorders, heart-related illnesses, depression, low self-worth, and in some extreme cases suicide.

Such issues impact the professionalism, efficiency, quality of work, and overall quality of their life. With chronic exposure to stress, leaders experience burn out too. 

Taboo on talks about mental health is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Generally, the younger generation leaders are open to talking freely about their health.

The vast majority of the older generation is still fixated on the unspeakable nature of their mental health. It is worth noting they are seeking help from therapists in their discretion.

Recommended read: Why Leaders Need to Change Their Relationship with Relaxation 

Leaders being vulnerable powers these discussions

Naomi Osaka, former no.1 ranking in women’s singles tennis, was one of the first sports sensations to speak openly about her psychological struggles in 2021 during the French Open.

She showed immense courage when she withdrew from the tournament as there was a confrontation to her claim and a warning with punishment by the Grand Slam authorities.

In the same year, Simone Biles withdrew from the gymnastics in the Olympics 2021 finals stating inability to perform due to mounting burden from earlier abusive experiences in her sport.

This article from the New Yorker speaks of the leaders in the sports industry assert their mental health is equally important as their physical health for peak performance.

Similarly, astronauts and film celebrities abroad and now in India too have been outspoken about their mental health.

This article from The Mint, 2020 tells how a handful of Indian CXOs felt it was important to reveal their mental health experiences with their employees.

They went against feeling lonely at the top and sought help to alleviate the effects of their unique stressors. 

Seeking help only improved their quality of life quality. Speaking about it had a positive impact on their employees, helping many resonate with their leader’s journey. 

This talk with Abhay Singhal and Veena Sethuraman from @inmobi illustrates their trust in emotional health and being supported in changing themselves here. 

Embracing Failure

Seek Support Now

1. Good for you

The common factor in all these leaders is not to do with having problems, but they were straightforward in speaking about it. They eventually sought the help needed to tackle it and return stronger. 

Once they did that, they reduced the shame that shrouded the mystery around mental illnesses.

The more one speaks about their shame, the more it dims in light. It makes one human, not a perfect machine operating without blemishes.

It is easier to set and maintain boundaries around anything that is not serving one’s purpose anymore. This will help in redirecting one’s energies to meaningful things.

2. Good for the business

Employees as well as leaders turn up satisfied with themselves. They offer quality work without taking work back home. Workplace burnout is reduced.  

Some Indian companies, see this list, offer paid leaves to those suffering from mental or physical health issues.

This article gives a comprehensive account of how some of Europe’s best companies deal with depression in their employees and bring about changes to help build the health of their work environments.

3. Good for the country

Well-performing companies contribute well to any economy. Happy employees make happy people, and a country will do well with such individuals. 

Here are 3 stories from the last 1 year of my coaching practice.

 Example 1: A leader suffering from bipolar disorder came into a great place of anxiety as he took on a new assignment. He hit a new low and did not show up to work for many days.

He had not revealed any of this to his Executive Council who was taken aback by him being uncontactable.

He had been on medications for a while however he was not actively in touch with his psychiatrist. He was first made to get in touch with his doctor so his medication could be readjusted.

I then recommended to him the need to work with a therapist as well as a coach in this period going forward.

He needed the scaffolding to manage the stress of transitions. The personal and the professional needed attention at the same time as business could not wait forever. He was supported to talk to his bosses who were fortunately very understanding. 

Example 2: A leader I was coaching had been in a toxic marriage and relationship. She found that with her new role as a Director in Global Sales, she felt great pressure and one day she called frantically to say  ‘I thought I was having a heart attack’. It wasn’t her heart. It was an anxiety attack.

The prolonged toxicity in her life meant that she had been functioning on reserve energy for too long. She had gone into a depression and had kept it hidden under overdrive and performance.

Now with the transitions in role and countries, she also had anxiety added to this mix.

She needed medication and the supervision of a doctor while I continued to be a support as a coach. In such periods coaches can support not in goal realisation but in strengthening resilience and self-care.

We become a space for letting off steam and another space for building self-awareness. 

Example 3– A leader in my personal circle expressed a constant sense of exhaustion. I wasn’t his coach, just a friend. He was not ill but still felt tired and expressed difficulty with waking up. He could no longer play his games in the morning, he said.

His blood work and a visit to a doctor told him he was experiencing ‘fibromyalgia’ a form of nerve breakdown and exhaustion.

He was also grieving some losses in his family and clearly the mind and body together needed some care and rest. After 30 years of working non-stop, he decided to take a sabbatical to recover and find some new avenues of self-care, joy, and ease.

After over a year he felt more ready to engage back in his professional roles. 

When to Seek Therapy?

Experiences such as these below are indicative and may signal something deeper going on.

1. Trouble with your teams and colleagues

Feeling increasingly irritated, frustrated, and impatient than before. Feeling this consistently and losing one’s balance on trivial issues.

2. Decreased concentration

Feeling dispassionate at work when it did interest you earlier. Feeling like your work is meaningless. Your mind wanders in important conversations. Physically present and mentally absent. 

3. Increased incidences of physical ill-health

These could be incidences of regular headaches, constant pains in limbs, chest pains, and sustained pain in muscles, especially shoulder, back, and calf muscles. Post a physical examination and checks it may be wise to interpret some of this as psychosomatic. 

4. Trouble with self

Unable to feel content with oneself or anything they do. Finding the need to distract one’s with alcohol, porn, or other substances. Finding a compulsion with any of these habits. 

5. Trouble with interpersonal relationships at home

Friends and family are concerned about your well-being. This is because you may have low moods while at home. Family may be telling you that you do not listen and are emotionally unavailable to them. They may see you lost or preoccupied. 

6. Decreased quality of sleep

Sleeping less, being awake longer, waking up, and being unable to fall back asleep are indicators. Constant thought and worry about issues over many weeks indicates a disturbance and this is best discussed in therapy as well as in coaching. 

The one fountainhead principle for leading strong

7. Recent traumatic events.

Events leading to grief, the trauma of any kind of loss, rejection, and failure which is occupying your mind to such an extent that it now interferes with your functioning

8. Increased emotionality:

Losing your sense of emotional balance with extreme responses to situations. Tears and being moved repeatedly in circumstances that do not necessarily warrant it. Prolonged feelings of heavy emotional feelings and low moods. 

Leaders lead themselves by taking care of themselves.

Leaders owe their teams and organizations their full selves bringing a healthy mind and body into work so they execute their roles and inspire their people. A leader who ignores their mental health is doing so risking their health and the health of their organization too.

Sailaja Manacha

Sailaja Manacha

Sailaja Manacha, a Master certified Coach from ICF, is known for her programs and coaching methods that combine psychology with leadership practices. In her work, Sailaja draws from Psychology, Ontology, NLP and Spiritual frameworks as well as rich, real-world experiences.

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