Why CEOs’ mental health is business-critical

An apparent decline in CEOs’ mental health in recent years is endangering company culture. Concerted action is required to pull them and their businesses back from the brink
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Usually, when we hear about the issue of mental health in the workplace, it relates to employees being overwhelmed by their workloads or problems in their personal lives. The mental health and wellbeing of CEOs is less often discussed, even though all too many leaders are facing significant difficulties here – and the situation appears to be worsening. 

For example, the proportion of top US executives that reported struggling with their mental health was 31% in 2022, compared with 12% in 2018. That’s according to a recent study by leadership expert Gordon Simmons, former CEO of Service Credit Union. And that’s despite the stigma associated with mental health issues potentially causing under-reporting. 

A survey by Deloitte last year also found that one in three C-suite executives constantly struggles with fatigue and poor mental health. As many as 70% have considered quitting their jobs to try to reset their emotional balance. 

There’s a significant business risk involved here. CEOs and other business leaders must carefully manage their own mental wellbeing while juggling the demands of running a company. Indeed, according to Russ Lidstone, that is part of the problem. A key factor in the rise in CEOs reporting mental health issues, he says, is that they must now deal with a “cascade of crises” on top of the day-to-day business challenges. 

Lidstone is group CEO of communications agency The Creative Engagement Group, which is a Mind Gold employer. He points to workplace changes after the Covid crisis, the current geopolitical situation, ongoing technological shifts, inflation and the cost of living as exacerbating factors here, making it difficult for CEOs to maintain a healthy work-life balance – especially as many leaders tend to take a ‘work hard, play hard’ approach. 

CEOs are human too

What’s also at play, observes psychotherapist and mindset coach Ella McCrystal, is habitually inadequate sleep levels, leading to exhaustion and “popping caffeine pills, or worse”. Exercise is all too often non-existent, she says, and nutrition is frequently deficient.

There’s an almost toxic culture of ‘this is our life’ and having to accept it to be at the top

“If you’re looking at burnout, overwhelm and stress, there’s a high chance that CEOs are experiencing it more than other employees,” McCrystal explains. “There’s an almost toxic culture of ‘this is our life’ and having to accept it to be at the top.”

Another factor is that although awareness of the importance of mental wellbeing is growing among the CEO community, they are less likely to either admit, or even see, that they personally have a problem. “Many CEOs have quite an obsessive nature, which helped them get to the top in the first place, but it can make them single-minded about work and lead to self-sabotage,” McCrystal says. “Or they can just be so dissociated from themselves and so focused on the tasks at hand that they don’t realise they’re burning out.”

How poor CEO mental health affects company culture

As devastating as this can be at a personal level, poor mental health in CEOs is also complicated by the knock-on effects, which are damaging to both the business and its culture

Charlotte Wiseman is founder and CEO of her own leadership and wellbeing consultancy. She explains that leaders under pressure tend not just to have shorter fuses but to also experience problems with focus and attention. What’s more, they often become more risk-averse, defensive and erratic in their thinking and decision-making

“It also makes people more likely to make unethical and less value-driven decisions and, because psychological safety is reduced, they’re less willing to own up to their mistakes,” Wiseman says. “Crucially, this means other people won’t either, because they’re afraid of the repercussions, so the culture becomes fear-based.”

Senior colleagues and employees can then feel neither listened to nor respected and valued, says Wiseman. Over time, this causes them to shut down and give up, which has a ripple effect throughout the organisation, often leading to game-playing, manipulation and other unhealthy power dynamics coming to the fore.

Why learning from past experiences matters

Sam White is founder and CEO of Stella Insurance and chair of the Freedom Services Group, both of which sell motor vehicle insurance. She started Stella Insurance 13 years ago, aged 24, but experienced anxiety that developed into a panic disorder. Coaching, therapy, self-education and self-care have helped her to deal with her challenges. She is now more self-aware and “a great believer in using psychology in business”. One of her key learnings has been the profound effect that leaders’ words and actions have on their employees.

Leaders cast a wide shadow, so their mental wellbeing will have a huge effect

“If you’re stressed, short-tempered and lash out without thinking, the impact on someone is far more powerful than if their colleague did the same,” White says. “Leaders cast a wide shadow, so it can be dangerous if you’re unaware of the power you yield. Your mental wellbeing and how you live your life will have a huge effect on how you behave at work.”

Lidstone takes a similar view and has worked hard to address this. During the Covid lockdowns, which he found testing, he “moved from being intuitive around wellbeing to consciously developing my own personal awareness and wellbeing strategy”. 

This strategy, which includes taking daily exercise and building in time to be with family, remains a cornerstone of Lidstone’s routine. This, he says, is because CEOs need to be “resilient” and “maintain an even keel”, both for their own benefit and the good of the organisation, using whichever approaches work best for them.

“The CEO is the focal point of the business,” Lidstone points out. “You’re an embodiment of the company and its culture, which you represent through your demeanour, body language and behaviour. It’s what gives people a sense, rightly or wrongly, of how the company is performing.”

How to set a good example on mental health

But being this embodiment also means that demonstrating healthy behaviour and leading by example are vital. “CEOs have a massive role to play because they have to own the issue of workplace wellbeing if it’s to be taken seriously,” Lidstone explains. 

“It’s so important to live in the same way you’d like the team to. For example, I’m about to go on holiday and I know that if I can switch off for 10 days, I’ll not just be a better leader, but others will feel able to do the same.”

Other ways that leaders can demonstrate that they own this issue might include offering appropriate resilience and people management training to line managers or providing employees with access to resources that enable them to take responsibility for their wellbeing.

Just as important is to “focus on getting people to solve workplace issues together”, says White. This involves bringing affected employees and managers to tackle an issue collectively, rather than allowing a situation to escalate into something which is harming people’s wellbeing, or attempting to solve it single-handedly.

Ultimately though, Wiseman thinks that one of the underrated secrets to CEO wellbeing is the little-understood skill of emotional resilience. “Most leaders tend to focus on cognitive resilience – that is to say, thinking their way around challenges. But that only goes so far,” she says, and adds that emotional resilience, which is about being able to sit with difficult emotions rather than thinking your way out of them, is something that most CEOs, and their companies, would benefit greatly from investing in.