EXECUTIVE IMPACT

We Need to Talk About Mental Health in the C-Suite

Photo Credit: Stocksy

By Amelia Harnish

There’s a famous joke about work that goes: "Oh, you hate your job? There's a support group for that. It's called everybody, and they meet at the bar." In 2021, it seems even those who are lucky enough to love what they do every day are coming to understand that joke on a bone-deep level. Except today’s joke would probably go like this: "Oh, you’re burnt out? There’s a support group for that. It’s called everybody, and they meet on Zoom."

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t done throwing new curveballs. The rising Delta variant, supply chain issues, labor shortages, and vaccine hesitancy continue to create uncertainty. Throughout these long 16 months of pandemic life, much has been said about the very real struggles of employees amid all the pandemic-wrought upheaval. Getting far less attention, however, is how each of these global challenges affected company leaders.

One report by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence surveyed 12,000 workers, including HR leaders and C-Suite executives across 11 countries and found that 53% of C-Suite executives struggled with mental health issues in the workplace, compared to 45% of employees who said the same. The executive team also experienced more stress and setbacks when adapting to remote work. While more and more employees are appreciating their newfound flexibility and remote-work environments, a whopping 85% of leaders found it challenging. Managing from afar, with different time zones and clunky, often unreliable tech, contributed to 40% of leaders saying they struggled to connect with their team during the great remote work experiment.

"Leaders have found themselves in this cycle of having an inability to stop thinking about work," says Lindsay Crittendon, Senior Director of Strategy and Operations at Headspace. "They know it’s a problem, but they don’t quite know how to get out of that cycle."

While much has been made of employees leaving their jobs due to burnout, it’s actually company leaders who are exiting at a faster clip. One dataset, from workforce analysis firm Viser, found that managers were leading the spike in departures in December of 2020. Managers resigned at an 11.8% higher rate than the year previous. Meanwhile, civic leaders are retiring in droves, with many blaming the stress of the pandemic. And perhaps most damning: CEO turnover — which plummeted in 2020 as companies sought stability amid the turmoil — is peaking. It jumped nearly 20% in February of this year, according to a recent report from business and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

Why Leaders Are More Susceptible to Burnout

Leading a company isn’t easy in normal times let alone during a pandemic, which comes with its own uniquely challenging issues.

"Leaders are typically conditioned to be steady and focused, inspiring calm. The uncertainty of this past year makes that incredibly tough," explains Jennifer Moore, Chief Member and Executive Director of The Mental Health Coalition. "Leaders are experiencing a lot of the things workers are experiencing, but they’re also charged with expressing support and empathy. Of course, the best leaders want to be empathetic but it does increase the burden on the leader no matter what."

On top of that, it’s frustrating — and may even mess with a sense of identity — for high-performing individuals to feel like the wheels are turning but they’re still getting nowhere. "Pretty much anyone I know who is VP or above feel that their work is bleeding into their personal lives," says Chief Member Tiffany Sun, Chief Content Officer at Happify Health. "People who usually are seen as being in control are definitely feeling out of control. Being able to help and offer solutions is part of a leader’s job. When you don’t have good answers for your team, it can make you feel ineffective. It’s hard for that to not affect you."

Relate? Here’s What to Do About It 

Maybe you don’t want to quit your job — but you don’t want to continue like this (or start meeting at the recently reopened bar with the "hate your job" support group) either. So what do you do?

The first step, if you ask Crittendon, is re-evaluating expectations. "Burnout is a result of a massive difference between where you are and the expectation of where you need to be, combined with feeling like you have no path to get there," she says. "It starts with having awareness that the world has changed and it’s okay to change as a leader."

Then comes self-care. Sun recommends remembering the acronym STAGER, a patented wellbeing framework developed by Happify, which stands for Savor, Thanks, Aspire, Give, Empathize, and Revive. Often, when we think about burnout we often focus on that last element — revive — by taking time off to hit the spa or go for a workout. Those are important steps for sure, but the other elements are necessary as well. For example, taking the time in your day to savor the small things — the way the sun looks in the morning or that funny joke your kid told at dinner — can help you feel grounded, even when work is crazy. It just takes a moment, but the research shows this can really help, Sun says.

Another big one that people overlook is empathy. "That means not just empathy for others but empathy for yourself," Sun adds. "If we were all practicing empathy we would live in a much different world."

Self-care is very personal. Often you have to find the habits and practices that work for you: meditation, getting more sleep, taking time off, leaning on friends and family, and speaking with a pro, like a therapist or coach, are all great ideas to explore.

The key is to not turn your self-care into yet another overwhelming project. Crittendon suggests focusing on incremental changes. Instead of trying to do all of the above at once, pick one area to focus on now and try to maintain that new habit for six weeks. "Making a small time-bound goal is probably the best way to dig yourself out of that hole."