We know that there has been a significant mental health decline amongst the working population since the start of the pandemic. Factors such as furlough, feeling isolated working from home, a blurring of the lines between work and home life and trying to juggle home schooling and caring responsibilities have had an impact the full weight of which we are only discovering now. As a result we have seen employers seeking to provide mental health and wellbeing support for their employees. However as is often the case, senior leaders are not always included in that support. Leadership can be a lonely place to be and in our experience senior leaders are less likely to ask for support conscious of how many are reliant on them.
Leadership mental health
There are a number of reasons why senior executives and partners have been under tremendous pressure during the pandemic:
• responsibility for the performance of their teams, inevitably accommodating the needs of multiple individuals and factoring in varying pressures of home life including childcare difficulties when schools were closed or providing extra support for those struggling with mental health challenges. Balancing business needs and individual needs in addition to ensuring a safe working environment and creating an appropriate return to the office policies is no small task.
• responsibility of formaintaining the profitability and stability of the business. Clients of the business may themselves be struggling financially and requests for goods or services that were desirable pre-pandemic may have been put on hold. Maintaining good client relationships has meant that flexibility has also been required, for instance, exploring flexible payment options with clients that might not have previously been on the table. Ultimately, staff jobs depend on there being a viable business to run, and this period of upheaval and uncertainty has weighed heavy on the minds of leadership teams in the last 18 months. Difficult decisions have been necessary, including in relation to furlough, redundancies and in relation to pay.
• lack of a forum to share pressures; whilst there has been a cultural shift towards individuals being more comfortable discussing mental health challenges, senior executives and partners are less likely to have psychologically safe or appropriate forums to discuss these issues. Partners may feel comfortable discussing any struggles or difficulties with other partners, although this is not necessarily the case. Even where business problems are usually shared and discussed amongst partners, individual partners may feel there is a distinction between true business issues and their personal matters, not feeling able to share difficulties with work that they feel are personal to them. Directors may not know where to turn when they feel the pressures of the pandemic are becoming too much. Do they, for example, speak up at a Board meeting? It is more likely that a director would confide in a fellow director, outside of official streams of communication, however they may be under similar pressures.
• a greater sense of stigma if they were to speak about their own difficulties. They are leaders and many people rely on them for guidance, support and to keep the business running. They may have increased concerns about their career prospects and longevity, about being perceived not to be fit to do their job and the reputational and financial problems this could cause.
These factors are borne out by a report by LifeWorks (previously known as Morneau Shepell) produced in April 2021 entitled “Mental health for people leaders during COVID-19: Leading on the edge”. The report explored the key findings from the Mental Health Index™ from April 2020 to January 2021 pertaining to people leaders (meaning someone who has a formal leadership role with one or more individuals reporting directly to them, including supervisors, managers and executive leaders). Interestingly, the notable key findings from the UK report related to the stigma of mental health:
• personal and perceived stigma among people leaders was higher than non-people leaders;
• 45 per cent of people leaders surveyed reported that they would feel negatively about themselves if they had a mental health issue compared to 38 per cent of non-people leaders;
• 45 per cent of people leaders reported that they would be concerned that their friends would treat them differently if they had a mental health issue compared to 34 per cent of non-people leaders;
• 54 per cent of people leaders were concerned that their career options would be limited if they had a mental health issue and their workplace was aware compared to 42 per cent of non-people leaders.
These findings mirror findings in a survey carried out by Lawcare, the legal mental health charity from over 1,700 legal professionals in the UK, Republic of Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey, and Isle of Man, between October 2020 and January 2021.
In that survey the majority of participants (69%) had experienced mental ill-health (whether clinically or self-diagnosed) in the 12 months before completing the survey. Of those who had experienced mental ill-health, only 56% said they had talked about it at work. The most common reason for not disclosing mental ill-health at work was the fear of the stigma that would attach, resulting in career implications, and financial and reputational consequences. Interestingly, 48% of those in a position of management or supervisory capacity had received leadership, management, or supervisory training.
So what can be done to address these issues? Does this period provide an opportunity to have a radical rethink about the way we work and how we lead?
Practising well-being from the top down and encouraging a wholesale change in company culture may help to mitigate the feelings of stigma often associated with speaking up about mental health and wellbeing. Introducing wellbeing policies across the business would not only give employees a greater sense of confidence in coming forward and addressing any problems they are experiencing, but would also help senior leaders keep themselves accountable for their own wellbeing. Ultimately, we work at our best and are likely to produce greater output when we look after ourselves. Open conversations and positive language around the topic, for example, “mental wealth”, help to portray a positive message that this is something for everyone to work on and maintain, not a covert problem for the few.
Please listen to our podcast for a discussion between Catriona Watt and Nikki Sawn about the issues explored in this blog. Do get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or thoughts about anything.