When someone struggles with a mental health challenge, they’re not the only one affected by it. Their families and friends — and their coworkers — may feel the impact. I sat down with Deborah Miscoll, Psy.D., a psychologist and Managing Director at Deloitte to talk about mental health in the workplace. In this conversation, we discussed the unique challenges that leaders face in seeking treatment and support for mental health conditions.

Jen Fisher: Why does mental illness seem like such a taboo subject for leaders?

Deborah Miscoll: People with mental health challenges often face stigmas. But imagine if your challenge could impact a wider circle than just your family and friends. Imagine if it wasn’t just a concern about your performance on a particular project — but on your ability to lead a team, a division, or even a company. For those in leadership positions, it takes a strong person to brave the world’s judgment and seek treatment for something as personal as a mental health issue.

Now, the truth is, leaders can struggle with mental health issues just like the rest of us. And the high levels of stress they experience in their roles may make them even more susceptible. At the same time, there may be more pressure on them to hide a condition, given the notability of leadership roles. But not talking about it doesn’t help anyone; not dealing with it certainly doesn’t help the person at risk — or their families or companies.

JF: It all comes back to education, doesn’t it? The more we talk about mental health challenges, the more we educate everyone about them, the more we bust up the old myths and eradicate stigmas, the better off we’ll all be.

DM: I think the tide is turning. We’re seeing that mental health challenges can affect everyone. We’re having more public conversations around the issues and how we can support people who face these challenges — and their caregivers.

But at the end of the day, many leaders still feel as if their position could be undermined if they were revealed to have a mental health challenge. They think they’d lose credibility, or negatively impact the company and their brand. The higher you climb up the corporate ladder, the bigger an issue it can become. It’s understandable that these concerns can arise, but not addressing them also is a really poor long-term strategy.

JF: What can people in leadership positions do if they feel they have a mental health challenge?

DM: You have to get over the mindset that you can “tough it out.” If something’s off, hiding from it won’t help. Challenge whatever internal biases you carry about seeking help, take accountability, and find yourself a licensed mental health clinician. Often companies have a confidential support system for their leaders that can help them navigate the health care system and get the treatment they need.

I’ve had people come to me and say, “I’ve had your name on my desk for a year, but I haven’t been able to make the call until today.” It took the leader that long to overcome the fear and anxiety of being “outed.” Another person told me they finally picked up the phone because “I was going to die if I didn’t get help.” Imagine if that person hadn’t overcome the fear and called. I’ve never had someone regret calling me; usually, they regret not having called me sooner.  

JF: What can the people around a leader do to create an atmosphere that isn’t so “lonely at the top”?

The leader sets the tone for the organization. So if they are working 120 hours a week and ignoring their outside life, that will likely trickle down to the rest of the organization. But if the leader prioritizes self-care, then others in the organization likely will too. And we’ve seen how the behaviors that cultivate well-being are the same behaviors that can help to mitigate mental health challenges. Lots of organizations have health and well-being programs, but if the leader isn’t modeling the behavior, the workforce won’t either.

When it comes to removing the stigma around mental health, if that comes from the top of the organization as well, then it will take root in the whole culture. It helps the leader who might need to step away for a while and employees at every level who face their own mental health challenges. Workers need the same safety to seek treatment and support.

JF: Bottom line: It’s good business to take care of your leader’s mental health.

DM: Yes — and everyone else’s as well.

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  • Jen Fisher

    Human Sustainability Leader at Deloitte and Editor-at-Large, Human Sustainability at Thrive Global

    Jen Fisher is a leading voice on the intersection of work, well-being, and purpose. Her mission is to help leaders move from the legacy mindset that well-being is solely the responsibility of the individual to the forward-thinking idea of human sustainability, which supports the long-term, collective well-being of individuals, organizations, climate, and society.  

    She’s the co-author of the bestselling, award-winning book, Work Better Together: How to Cultivate Strong Relationships to Maximize Well-Being and Boost Bottom Lines, the Human Sustainability Editor-at-Large for Thrive Global, and the host of the WorkWell podcast series.

    As the first chief well-being officer of a professional services organization, Jen built and led the creation and execution of a pioneering holistic and inclusive well-being strategy that has received recognition from leading business media brands and associations.

    Jen is a frequent writer on issues impacting the workplace today, including the importance of mental health and social connection to workforce resilience, happiness, and productivity. Her work has been featured in CNBC, CNN, Fast Company, Fortune, Inc, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Harvard Business Review, among others.

    She’s a sought-after speaker and has been featured at events including TEDx, World Happiness Summit, Out & Equal Workplace Summit, Acumen Global Gathering, WorkHuman, The Atlantic Pursuit of Happiness event, and more. She’s also lectured at top universities across the country, including Harvard, Wake Forest, Duke, and George Mason.

    Jen is passionate about sharing her breast cancer and burnout recovery journeys to help others. She’s also a healthy lifestyle enthusiast, self-care champion, exercise fanatic, sleep advocate, and book nerd! Jen lives in Miami with her husband, Albert, and dog, Fiona.

    You can find her on LinkedIn or on Twitter and Instagram @JenFish23. You can also receive her personal insights and reflections by subscribing to her newsletter, "Thoughts on Being Well" @jenfisher.substack.com.