A leader is supposed to have everything under control, to be able to inspire and motivate her team under any circumstance – but these same expectations make it taboo for executives to speak about mental health, in particular their own mental health.

In reality, the demands on an executive are similar to the demands that society places on women in general: they need to be everything and nothing at the same time, caring but not showing too many emotions, understanding but straightforward and goal-oriented. The list is endless and, just like any other multi-faceted influence concept, will result in many different leadership styles.

At the end of the day, a leader should be agile, adaptive, forward-thinking, and have high social and emotional intelligence. Some research even suggests that SI and EI are more important in leadership than is IQ!

Mental Health has a significant role in leadership

The responsibilities of a modern executive are complex. As well as their duty to employees and the day-to-day business to run, they are answerable to stakeholders, partners, and potential investors…and, of course, to their own families as well. Many executives, despite finding fulfillment in their work, still have a secret battle in balancing out the differing demands on their focus, frequently struggling to attain equilibrium and subconsciously living in fear of losing credibility, disappointing investors, or even of being replaced.

These difficulties are often manifested in changes in management style: patronizing approaches, cynical hovering, controlling, aggressive micromanaging, etc., – none of which foster the growth of a team.

Poor Leadership and Mental Health

Recognition of mental health does not apply just with respect to your team! While normalizing the topic for employees is an important step, it is also necessary to recognize that executives are human too and, as such, also need protection from burnout, depression or any other mental health issues.

Regrettably, the mental health of a leader is not just a private matter.  It can impact the team and the company negatively if it is not addressed correctly and, if not handled in a timely manner, can have a negative impact on the individual and alter the power status between executives and team members.

In short, as an executive, your actions, your mood, and your reactions have a greater significance within the company. It is, therefore, vital to be aware of your own mental health in order to effectively carry out your role in inspiring, motivating and leading people.

How to change the taboo around mental health in leadership

Let’s start by normalizing and understanding that a leader does not need to know everything. Particularly for founders, business and private life often intersect very closely with one another: meaning your private values intersect with your business life, and, because of that, distancing yourself from the business becomes so much harder – often leading to the private side of life being pushed to the side.

Work-life balance is one way of maintaining mental health, but positive mental health isn’t just a matter of spending enough time away from work. Especially for individuals who find high levels of satisfaction at work, creating healthy habits that allow them to foster a healthy mind can look very different. It is important to realize that, for high achievers, mental distress might appear in diverse forms – especially in the beginning stages.

What is mental health?

Mental health is emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. It influences how you think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how you handle stress, relate to others, and make decisions. When experiencing mental health issues, your thinking, mood, and behavior can be affected.

Among the many factors which can alter mental health are:

  • Prolong exposure to stress
  • Unhealthy lifestyle issues:
    • Persistent lack of sleep
    • Poor eating habits
    • Drink and/or drug habits
    • Environmental pollution
  • Biological issues such as gene or brain chemistry
  • Life experiences such as trauma or abuse.

The difference between good and bad stress

The first thing that many leaders and executives need to learn is to differentiate between the stress that is making them better at what they do and the stress that is preventing them from being the best version of themselves. 

Good stress is the kind of stress that you feel when you are standing at the edge of a plane ready to skydive while your palms might feel sweaty, but you are also filled with euphoria. It is the kind of stress that keeps you excited and eager to move forward even if you have made a mistake – because you know that mistakes are part of the process. Your mind is sharp and focused because you know that you are getting closer to finding the solution or breaking the code. This kind of stress is positive when experienced occasionally because it helps you to use your mental capabilities to the fullest.

And then there is the kind of stress that keeps you awake because your thoughts are running in a circle. You storm into the office already out of breath, your to-do list is never-ending, and you lose sight of time at the office because you don’t see the horizons anymore.

The latter is what keeps your nervous system on high alert; you experience faster heartbeats, your muscles tighten, your blood pressure elevates, your breathing quickens, and your senses tighten. While this may help you focus, which seems like a benefit, the problem with this type of stress is that the increased adrenaline and cortisol levels produced by it can create severe negative effects such as anxiety and depression.

While many leaders don’t necessarily want to talk about their mental health, unhealthy management styles are often the outcome of the prolonged experience of stress. These effects can be observed in almost any company.

Anger is a result of anxiety and overwhelm

Anxiety is often connected with excessive stimulation due to a stressful environment or with the feeling of being threatened – particularly when combined with the feeling of being unable to deal with that threat. In contrast, anger is often tied to frustration.

Similarly, when left unacknowledged and unexpressed, anxiety can turn into frustration, which, in turn, can lead to anger…and haven’t we all seen an angry supervisor who lets off steam in the most unexpected moments!

There are many different examples of leadership where we can see that there is a misalignment between the words and actions taken by leaders. Sometimes the misalignment is minute and sometimes it really requires a big wake-up call on the side of the leader. 

This is why executives can benefit from working with someone that can bring a different perspective