A 2015 study by Dr. Michael Freeman at the University of Southern California, San Francisco reported that 49% of entrepreneurs struggle with some form of mental illness in their lives. Thirty percent (30%) suffer from ongoing depression. Similar studies in Canada, the UK, and Australia report even higher numbers. Those results are from five years ago; I would speculate that the numbers were higher pre-pandemic and are certainly even higher today.

Leading a business is challenging at the best of times, struggling with depression exacerbates a leader’s life even more. To further the struggle, the stigma of weakness adds another troubling layer to a difficult existence. The last thing a leader with depression is weak. Living dual lives is how we exist. On the inside our life is full of hopelessness, desperation, and fear. While on the outside our life must be seen to be hopeful, positive, and full of promise. This duality is exhausting! So what can be done?

Here is what I have been sharing in my workshop entitled What is the Cost of Depression to You and Your Business?

Evaluate – You must make a decision – are you tired of this sad and lonely life? Take a deep dive into why your life is the way it is. Contrary to popular belief depression is not primarily caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic predisposition. It comes about as a result of emotional, physical, and sexual trauma we have experienced in our personal and professional environments. As leaders, we deal with trauma daily. The ups and downs of business leadership are well documented. Unhealthy stress is the start, left unchecked it will manifest into anxiety, and if not dealt with can become depression. Remember it starts at the top, if you are leading a stressful environment because of your issues, it will trickle down to the team.

Learning – So, you’ve decided you’ve had enough. The next step is to educate yourself. We live in a world where information is at our fingertips. If you Google “entrepreneurial depression” you’ll get 7.9 million results, “leadership and depression” will garner 184 million results. Depression is a very personal disease and affects different people in different ways. Podcasts and blogs are particularly effective as you will likely see yourself in the content and guests. Before visiting a physician, educate yourself. Start an educational initiative in your business. Sixty-five percent (65%) of Gen X and Millennials are making employment decisions based on the focus on mental wellness of the prospective employer.

Expressing – Communicating how you feel or the ability to empathize with those struggling is the next step. Based on the current socio-economic environment, the leader who can empathize with the team will have a competitive edge over those that don’t or won’t. Empathy involves understanding what the person you are speaking with is experiencing – without judgment. Actively listening and respecting how they feel emotionally is key. Finally, without solving the problem, ask them what you can do to help them. You will also want to set those empathetic expectations with those that want to help you. Though difficult, expressing vulnerability as a leader is a powerful attribute that affects employee satisfaction and retention.

Vetting – You would not hire a new CFO without interviewing them first – would you? Or bring on a new vendor without checking references and financial viability – would you? So, why in the world do we engage a mental or even a physical health professional solely based on referrals? This is our health (and the health of our families) we are talking about here. Before seeing a therapist, Google their name or access review sites for what others are saying about the doctor. The first appointment should involve interviewing the therapist. Are they licensed? What is the focus of the practice? Do they deal with a personal mental illness? What therapies do they work with? What is the frequency of appointments they will recommend? It can go on and on. If the doctor is reticent or critical of your inquisitiveness, you may want to consider another therapist. After all, you are the customer, aren’t you?

Awareness – There is a financial cost of depression to a business. It is a cost that we likely do not include in projections, and don’t attempt to calculate. And yet depression results in a national average of absenteeism of 15 days per depressed employee. Even worse is the cost of presenteeism (time spent at work with little or no productivity), resulting in up to 60 days per depressed employee. Remember, it starts with stress and anxiety. Again, the upcoming workforce of Gen X and Millennials will not tolerate a work environment that is not conducive to positive mental health.  

Tried and Tested – So what can be done to minimize and overcome depression? Apart from therapy, I have found a routine is critical. It starts with getting out of bed as soon as you wake, so you don’t spend time ruminating. An early morning exercise routine is key. It doesn’t have to involve a gym membership; a simple and vigorous 30-minute walk will suffice. A complete breakfast before going to work is advantageous. Planning your day before you start it is a positive step. At the end of the day reviewing what you’ve accomplished as it sets the tone for the following day. Meditating is also a powerful tool for mindfulness and minimizing the effects of depression.

Examine – Depression is a disease, there is no blood test and no cure. It may reduce or even disappear for a while. What you can count on is that it will reappear – usually when it is inconvenient. Constant vigilance and examining of how you are feeling is key. I use the 5-Minute Journal to keep an eye on myself. Monitoring of the team concerning stress and anxiety levels and signs of depression is a key to great organizational mental health.

So what’s the investment needed? First, whether or not you are struggling you must invest in your own mental health. Second, provide empathetic leadership for a safe and inclusive environment. Third, provide information, support, and education for the team. When executed in combination, the ROI will be immeasurable.  

The mental health of the leader is key to the mental health of the team. I faked it for over 30 years of struggle. Though I believed my behavior was necessary my inauthenticity was inconsiderate to my family, my team, customers, and most importantly to me.

John Panigas is the author of Crazy, Who Me? My Journey As a Leader Overcoming Depression. John provides workshops, coaching, and in-house mental wellbeing programs to leaders and organizations that realize there is both a personal and financial cost of depression to the team and the business. His workshop titled: What is the Cost of Depression to You and Your Business? highlights the tool “The COD (Cost of Depression) Calculator©” which calculates the financial cost of depression and mental illness to your business.

John can be reached at [email protected] and www.johnpanigas.com

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