Dealing With Depression In A Leadership Role

So you’ve spent years working and striving until you’ve achieved the much-coveted C-Suite role you’ve been after or you’ve been building. Then what? Well, if you’re like most members of the C-Suite club, you’re probably going to find yourself suffering from some kind of depression and anxiety.

A lot of people tend to argue individuals who head out to attain more than others often suffer from depressive episodes. Big highs, big lows. Whether that’s true or not is not the most important thing, when you’re dealing with the kinds of pressures associated with the responsibilities of keeping a business going you’re bound to be susceptible to mental health issues.

What is unquestionable is there is a higher incidence of depressive episodes amongst board members. It’s well over double the national average with 64% of business leaders suffering from mental health issues. When I first thought about developing a business this is a stat I had no knowledge about. To be honest had I really had an understanding about what being a senior exec or business owner does to your mental health, I’m not sure I would have risked my already fragile state of mind. But hey, here we are.

My wavering mental health has regularly causd problems for my business and team over the years. I’m working on it and have been working on it fairly constantly for the last 18 months because I knew something had to give. It’s not an easy journey though, it’s definitely a case of two steps forward and one step back.

One of the most important things you’ve got to bear in mind is mental health issues are not a personality defect. We are all susceptible to poor mental health, it can be a result of the events we’ve gone through in life as well as illness and our biochemistry. If you’ve worked your way up the greasy corporate ladder or have run and grown your own business you’re going to have experienced stress, anxiety and/or depression.

Most of us beat ourselves up about these kinds of depressive experiences, which just makes it worse. But you’re in good company. You’ve only got to think about historic leaders and business leaders such as Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs – even the Buddha experienced depression.

I think one of the most important steps I’ve taken over the last year and a half is getting professional help. I referred myself through the national health service’s self-referral programme. It was a form of CBT training that has provided some tools to help deal with certain things. I have had suicidal thoughts since I was in primary school – nothing I would act on – just an unhealthy mental exercise, but I didn’t recognise how frequent this exercise had become. The tools I learned there have helped me but I recognised quite quickly afterwards that just a one-off hit wasn’t enough.

Whilst also regularly trying to revisit the tools I got through the CBT training I’ve done I’ve also spent some time working with a few other professionals.

I’ve spent some time with an NLP specialist, with a wellbeing coach and even with my PT, who believes in tackling mental health issues by activating and deactivating different parts of the nervous system. I think they’ve all had some positive impact but it’s always two steps forwards and one step back. And the key thing I’ve learned is I’m the one that has to do the work but that I need other people to help.

Of course, it’s harder to ask for help when you’re in a leadership role. You’re supposed to know the answers or be able to find them. But really, in leadership roles we don’t magic the answers from anywhere, we look at what our team are bringing to the mix, we watch videos, read books, listen to podcasts etc. It’s the same as seeking help with your mental health and wellbeing.

If you broke your arm you’d get it reset wouldn’t you? Why would your mental health be any different?

Also, you’re not alone in this, your mental health as a business leader is not just your responsibility. Whilst the onus will always be on you to get this sorted, it’s also the responsibility of your business. Because if you are so damaged – and no doubt you will be – your business will start to engender some of your toxicity. You and your colleagues have to be able to talk about your behaviour and probably their own and strategise about how to improve things and how to put measures in place to ensure the leadership doesn’t destroy things from the inside out.

I’m working on building up a team of people who I can regularly speak to about the things I’m going through.

I’ll put a caveat to all of the above. You can’t rely on your family and friends for this. They will help from time to time but you need to get professionals in place to help you because eventually your friends and family will say “just pull yourself together.”

It’s also worth saying that you should be selective about the people you work directly with. Some people just don’t know how to deal with it. They will see it as you being difficult or negative and this can lead to negative interactions, which can make a depressive cycle even worse. If you’re in a leadership role and find yourself dealing with a subordinate it’s fairly easy to remove people from your circle of influence. If you’re dealing with another board member then it can be a bit more tricky. As long as you approach it from the perspective that there are organisational benefits from everyone being responsible for each others’ wellbeing you should be OK, if they don’t agree then you can then agree to reduce your interactions whilst you’re focusing on improving things.

You’ve worked hard to get to this point. You’ve built a business or grown through the corporate structure. You’ve seen success in your business life and probably in your personal life as well. But when you’re dealing with depression and anxiety you’re going to find decisions fairly difficult to make and even the simplest of tasks can seem overwhelming. This is bad for your business, your employees and for your personal life.

“Attitude is a little thing that can make a big difference” so said the aforementioned Churchill. In a leadership role, it’s important that you’re moving things forward and make a difference on a daily basis and this requires a certain level of positivity. When you’re in the middle or on the edges of a depressive episode it can be fairly difficult to exude the levels of positivity you really should be doing.
By faking this positivity, even when those around you know how much you’re struggling, you will inspire those around you to be more positive.

Ultimately your good mental health is going to be good for your business.

Focus on thinking clearly. Resolving the relationship issues you may have. Position yourself in the most positive way possible. Exhibit the enthusiasm and energy you want your colleagues to have for the business.
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Whenever my mental health is low, I often approach things the wrong way. This can lead to quite destructive situations. One of my colleagues is good at suggesting I might not be in the right mindset for the meeting. Unfortunately, when I’m not in the right mindset being told I’m not in the right mindset or that being suggested in front of other people does not always result in the best outcome. It’s something I need to consider more.

Whilst working on your mental health you might have great big revelatory moments, however, most of the time you’ll find yourself making small incremental gains. These are the best kind of gains because generally, these are the types of gains that are most sustainable. Most people will have setbacks.

Depression, anxiety, stress, it’s all treatable. You can reprogram how you think about things. You can change your mindset and become more positive. You’ve got to this point and that takes grit and determination and a positive mindset. Transfer those skills to your mental health. You’ve got this.

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