“I had three CEOs on the phone to me crying”: Leaders’ mental health needs urgent attention

Leaders’ mental health may be crumbling, but as the public face of a company, CEOs often feel undue pressure to ‘have it all together’.

“The buck stops with me” was a phrase popularised by US President Harry Truman.

The oft-quoted saying applies to CEOs too, who carry the burden of responsibility and accountability (along with an organisation’s board) for a company’s final decisions.

It’s a position of prestige and power, but one with enormous responsibility that can take a heavy toll on a leader’s mental health.

In a recent global survey of 12,347 respondents conducted by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, 53 per cent of C-suite executives reported having mental health issues compared to 45 per cent of employees, and according to Business in the Community’s Mental Health at Work 2020 report, “authority may be linked with depression and CEOs may be at twice the risk of the general public”.

CEOs often present a composed and controlled disposition, but their private persona may not be reflective of the public face most of us bear witness to.

Toxic culture hampers leaders’ mental health

Pam MacDonald CPHR is an executive and leadership coach who has seen both sides.

While addressing leaders’ mental health issues requires acknowledgement in the first instance, for some CEOs, merely recognising difficult emotions – let alone speaking up about them – is a “step too far”, says MacDonald.

“A lot of organisations, through their internal promotion and selection process, focus on something close to perfection, and a culture and style that brushes over weakness.”

“It’s a hypercompetitive environment and culture that we have inadvertently created, and so nobody wants to raise a vulnerability for fear of being the blood in the water that the sharks will come and attack.”

“If we’re not careful 2021 will be a mental health tsunami coming at us following the pent-up neglect of 2020.” – Stuart Taylor, SpringFox

In 2020, though mental health issues were on the increase, MacDonald says many CEOs were still hesitant to let their guards down.

“I often heard, ‘But I’m the CEO. I’m expected to have everything together and therefore there is something wrong with me if I don’t.’

“My mantra in 2020 was ‘No one has everything together,” says MacDonald.

“I had one week last year when I had three of my CEOs on the phone to me crying.  They are robust, mentally healthy individuals, but we often talk about CEOs being in the loneliest positions in the world.”

“Their staff look up to them for guidance and answers, and their board turns to them for advice and guidance. Who does the CEO go to if they have questions? I’m grateful there are CEO networks where they can talk peer to peer in a safe environment and feel like they aren’t alone.”

Having emerged from the COVID-19 lockdowns last year, and as we begin to prepare for a post-pandemic workforce, MacDonald has noticed a new set of issues emerging.

“I’m starting to see the burnout among people who have been on an adrenaline rush through 2020 and are now being very stringent in their evaluation of their lifestyle, their role and life in general. Some are saying, ‘I’m not really sure I want this CEO or leadership role anymore. I might exit stage left and do something else’.”

Making the call to step away

Given the high pressures experienced by leaders, many individuals, such as Stuart Taylor, took this step well before COVID-19 struck.

Taylor had been working as an associate director leading a team of 20 at one of the big four accounting firms – an experience he remembers as “both unbelievably exciting, but at the same time, incredibly high pressure”.

“I would give my all to a particular project… and then at the end find myself collapsing with exhaustion or stress, or burnout,” says Taylor.

But at the beginning of 2002, Taylor was confronted with a life-altering medical diagnosis.

“I started experiencing some medical symptoms and eventually went and saw a doctor about it. I got a brain scan and ended up with a diagnosis of a grade three brain tumour.

“This was one of the ramifications of where I had gotten myself to, and the extent to which it was lifestyle driven or genetically driven – who knows – but it was certainly a significant cause for me do some enormous reflection, and to say, ‘What the hell am I doing, and am I approaching life in the best way possible?’”

Taylor underwent intensive surgery and radiotherapy, before founding wellbeing consultancy Springfox in 2003. He has since helped leaders at companies including Vodafone, CitiBank, Australian Post and PwC with self-care strategies such as mediation and exercise, building resilience and meeting others with more compassion.

Research published by SpringFox last year revealed that productivity remained relatively unchanged during COVID-19, but workload “went through the roof”.

“As a consequence, the level of stress doubled. That’s expected but when you think about it from a leader’s perspective, trying to hold an organisation together [and going from] from face-to-face engagement to working from home and keeping them connected, [they’re dealing with] quite an extra load.”

Alleviating leaders’ mental health issues

Being open and transparent about mental health issues with employees is Taylor’s key piece of advice for leaders.

“Say to your team, ‘These are the things I am doing to invest in my own mental health, and it will be a big priority for us this year to do that.’

“It gives their staff permission to be real about how they are travelling. That was part of the [problem of 2020]. Many [people] put forward a perception that, ‘I am ok’… if we’re not careful 2021 will be a mental health tsunami coming at us following the pent-up neglect of 2020.”

MacDonald says that “most CEOs ”put on a brave face, but from an HR perspective, when you have a good close working relationship with a CEO, you pick up on the signs.”

It can be challenging to pinpoint signs to remain wary of, since symptoms can vary depending on the standards set in a particular organisation.

“Lots of people were turning up on video calls in more casual clothes or with their hair looking dishevelled. For some people that’s a sign that their self-care is dropping, but I also know a lot of other CEOs who would say, ‘I deliberately got a lot more relaxed about my presentation because I wanted to let my team know that it’s ok if we’re working from home and you turn up at an 8am meeting with your hair not done properly,’” says MacDonald.

“Leaders have a variety of different responses and approaches that speak to how we need to have that north star, and know what our values and expectations are.”

Then when behaviour deviates from expectation, HR can identify if there’s a problem at play.

Key warning signs to look out for in leaders and employees include the following warning signs:

  • Flat affect or low mood
  • Appearing fatigued, low in energy or irritable
  • Experiencing difficulty meeting deadlines which may be out of character
  • Significant weight changes
  • Expressing feelings of worthlessness

Mental health issues arising out of COVID-19 have also made it more commonplace for employers and employees alike to enquire about the mental health of their colleagues – even when they may be struggling to stay afloat themselves.

“Nobody wants to raise a vulnerability for fear of being the blood in the water that the sharks will come and attack.” – Pam MacDonald CPHR, leadership coach.

“One piece of advice I’ve given to a number of people is to ask the question about how someone is feeling. Even if you don’t have the bandwidth to [provide a comprehensive response], you have shown them that you care – that, more than anything else, is what got a lot of people through 2020,” says MacDonald.

“Some people are concerned that if they ask someone how they are doing, that they don’t have capacity or skills to deal if that person unloads,” says MacDonald. But that’s where a robust HR structure and access to an EAP system steps in.

“HR has a role to support employees at every level, to ask people how they are doing, and sometimes say: ‘That is beyond me, but I wonder if that’s something you can talk to our EAP counsellor about.’”

MacDonald’s final tip to bear in mind? “CEOs are human too. We have got to remember this.”


“I had three CEOs on the phone to me crying”: Leaders’ mental health needs urgent attention – HRM online