Picture this: Gary Jones*, the current COO of a finance start-up organization, like all of us, recently indulges in binge watching popular TV shows. When the stress of multiple non-stop workdays pulls him down, he orders his favourite caramel popcorn, sinks into the couch, and lets the pleasure of entertainment engulf him completely.
The guilt inside him fights this relaxation, but he brushes it aside. Gary has learnt his lesson the hard way, through the years, that it is especially important to take time and slow down. If he does not, stress in sales will morph into something vicious.
That is what happened to him a few years ago, when he joined the start-up organization. He constantly projected the outward appearance of a confident, focused, and positive leader — the opposite of how he felt inside. In the process of working round the clock, he became sleep deprived, had personal relationship issues, mood changes, weight gain and his emotions went off the roof and in no time, he was undergoing depression. What brought him back was therapy that helped him gain equilibrium, clarity and made him feel alive again.
Gary was lucky, but a considerable number of business leaders globally aren’t. They are facing countless setbacks (from downsizing to disputes within the top hierarchy and loss of revenues) especially post pandemic. Leaders are grappling with innovative challenges like Quiet Quitting and Great Resignation, that needs innovative and fundamental approaches to succeed, but also creates pressure in the process.
One such foundational approach is to build a vertical coherence between the body, heart, mind and soul of leaders. In this article, I want to deep dive into ensuring better mental well-being for CEOs.
Although there has been an increasing awareness on mental health, leaders are still reluctant to acknowledge their struggles. Top CXOs and CEOs rarely admit vulnerability, as most often mental illness is perceived as a sign of weakness.
As a CEO or CXO you are juggling the mental health of your employees and yourself at the same time. So, it is important to note that you need to wear the oxygen mask first before helping others around you.
As a psychologist who is working in a leadership development organization, I can say with confidence that working on your mental wellbeing can have a positive impact on your personal growth as well as that of the organizations you lead. From my clinical counselling experience, I am sharing effective guidelines that can help you as a C-Suite leader, keep track of your mental health and ensure you can appropriately recharge yourself to become the best version of yourself.
1. Focus On Leading An Active Lifestyle:
As a leader, you already have a packed calendar full of engagements, meetings, and travel apart from personal and family commitments. With the plate full, engaging in a physical activity can never sound appealing. It is a proven fact that exercise can improve your mental wellbeing and health. Based on your physical health condition, you can choose your exercise regime ranging from yoga, gym or even fast-paced walking. You can also choose to move out of the comfort zone and try activities like hiking, dancing, swimming, marathon training, cycling or any other physical activity that makes you feel happy.
Psychological research data highlights the cognitive benefits of leading a physically active life. Exercise has a positive impact on mental health by improving self-esteem, reducing cortisol levels, increasing endorphins, improving cognitive function, reducing anxiety and phobias attached to it as well as improves your overall gravitas.
It is always easier said than done, but for leaders who dread physical activity alone, you can always find innovative ways. The concept of Role Blending is very useful for top busy executives. This is a beautiful solution to Role Conflict and Role Competition that executives often find themselves struggling with. One life role sometimes competes with the other for attention, example, a customer meeting vs a parent teaching meeting. Or, when executives choose one role in lieu of the other, there is anxiety and stress associated. For e.g., when they choose the customer meeting over the parent teaching meeting, there is guilt involved regarding the personal life. When there is so much guilt, frustration and anxiety and ROLE BLENDING is a beautiful solution to address it.
I will encourage executives to try something new, a morning walk with a customer, volunteering for a community cause with your team members, golf with CEO support groups or walking along a beach with family. This will not just promote health and keep a check on mental health, but also provide avenues to be socially connected with family and network with your circle.
Regardless of your leadership position, it is important to lead a healthy and active life as you need to always be prepared to tackle issues, lead teams, grow the organization along with you.
2. Accept Your Boundaries
At the end of the day, when you enter your personal space (home) with unfinished tasks and sink into the couch, a cloud of guilt and questions will pop in your head- What am I missing out by reading my favourite author? Why do I need to give this precious time for family or self when I have deals to win? Have I received important mails from my customers? What else should I be doing to grow my business? Am I doing injustice to my organization by wasting time now?
In a training program run on psychological perspectives, the CEOs were asked a question- When was the last time you took a vacation? Many of them did not remember and some of them mentioned, they have no time for annual breaks. And this briefly is a problem. If you are a CEO or a C-Suite leader who is constantly working, sending emails at 3 am in the morning, feeling tired, then your whole team will start to feel the stress and expectation too, which will lead to mental health issues across the organization. This is when boundaries come into play. Learn to set and accept boundaries in your mind first, for example, a boundary can be no work-related emails after 6pm.
A tip for leaders will be to prioritise their calendar, scheduling everyday and every week, factoring in breaks, meetings and do not disturb work time, or as some leaders say Stop the Madness Time (STM😊). Another key time management tip is it plan meetings effectively. I truly hope the 2 x 2 matric in the article highlighted will help you manage your meeting and, therefore, boundaries better.
I will encourage leaders to ask yourself, “How much more can I and my team achieve with boundaries and balances?”
3. Hire A Personal Executive Coach
The challenges a leader in C-Suite faces can be different from others and sometimes it becomes hard to discuss these unique challenges to people unfamiliar with the role and its demands. In such circumstances, coaching will be the solution. The executive coach will help you focus on yourself, the key to this is finding a coach that clicks for you. A good coach will help you overcome critical roadblocks and show you a pathway to tap into your own potential to become a world class leader.
A CEO who completed his coaching journey recently with a senior coach at Global Coaching Lab shared his experience on coaching as below-
“Coaching will give a leader more clarity and tremendous support. My coach worked on this journey along with me to help me become a better business leader by tapping into my true potential. While I could have done this on my own, with my mental health at the back seat, it certainly would have been more stressful and impacted my family and work life. With clear goals and frameworks, coaching has helped me embrace myself as a human being and then as a business leader.”
Venkataraman Subramanyan, Senior Leader and Sales Coach says, “Your coach is your third eye (metaphorically meaning the seat of insight, foresight, intuition and window to your full potential), and a good coach is one who can help open up your third eye.”
4. Become Assertive And Deliberate To Seek Help
Leading in not an easy task and often CEOs are considered as heroes or gods. This thinking process makes the CEOs conceal their vulnerabilities and problems and behave like superheroes. This can have fatal consequences at times. At the end of the day, leaders cannot escape mental illness. The pressure of being a CEO can show up in various forms like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anger, anxiety, narcissism, bipolar conditions, fear, elevated levels of optimism et.al.
Did you know that mental health conditions and addiction can be related? Substance abuse among top leaders arise as a form of self-medication to cope with challenges. A next in line CEO of a family run organization, was nominated for a coaching journey with Global Coaching Lab, he revealed his displeasure in undergoing this journey stating that he had too much on his plate and is taking pills for anxiety issues and his stress will not allow him to be prepared for the coaching sessions. But a chemistry conversation with a senior Mentor Coach, made him give himself the permission to give Coaching a shot.
Over the conversations the Coach found that the main issue was a busy work schedule with a poor work life balance that let no room for basic self-care regime, no proper nutrition, lack of meaningful personal relationships. The lack of self-care added to the emotional distress making him vulnerable and resorting to substances. With help from the mentor, after multiple sessions, he was able to see a professional therapist and take charge of his life
Popping a pill, alcohol abuse or other addictions are always an easy route compared to being available for self-care. Rather than taking help from a therapist, spiritual guru, mentor or even family and peers, CEOs think they can manage their own emotional turmoil. Afterall managing is what they do best.
Displaying strength professionally when you are struggling with mental disorders or addiction is tough and eventually in this battle you will lose. The longer you keep yourself from seeking help, the further it will get harder, and your intelligence or business success will not be able to protect you from this phenomenon. Although as a CEO you will have self-reliance, dealing with mental health issues requires support of trusted sources. A therapist, a peer, spiritual gurus, or mentors can guide you towards healing with compassion and dignity.
I would recommend leaders to make friends with stress and encourage yourselves to Watch the famous Ted Talk of Kelly McGonigal.
5. Learn To Laugh
Prolific writer Maya Angelou once said that- “Don’t trust people who do not laugh.” She must have been right since science confirms it. According to science, when we laugh especially with others, our brain releases oxytocin and dopamine (pleasure/happy hormones) and suppresses cortisol (stress hormone) and with this we become empathetic.
A leader we have coached at Global Coaching Lab, used to be very quiet and almost silent in team gatherings outside work. Nobody felt comfortable to speak with him nor get him into many conversations. He would nurse a drink silently. This affected his mental health and confidence. Then his coach helped him explore the “letting -go” attitude by embracing the Fool Archetype. And good things happened slowly, he became great fun for his team. With this attitude, he and his team had such great work achievements that this leader was promoted. See how much a small change of letting go and embracing humour can help leaders achieve more than just balanced mental and emotional health.
Today we are living in a world of digital transformation and uncertainty where trust in business and management is low. Leaders must become innovative, and humour is one mature ego defence mechanism that can foster trust in relationships. It can unlock creativity and help find unique solutions to challenges, boosting resilience in the time of stress that can indirectly affect mental health.
The question I will encourage leaders to ask themselves is, “How comfortable am I with showcasing my vulnerability?” Vulnerability and humour are interconnected and produce great results together.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate, as a CEO it is always important to lead by example. Failing to manage one’s own mental health and contributing to stress in people we manage is directly proportionate to increase in absenteeism, amplified anxiety, and depression, decreased productivity, heightened emotions, low engagement, and morale. This can affect the mental well-being of executives.
The final piece of the puzzle is the latest buzzword quite quitting and people leaving their positions. The mental and physical well-being of leaders as well as employees is important for the stability of the organization. Teams function and perform better when there is a sense of well-being. This directly impacts other aspects of life outside work. While there is no rule book for helping business sail through a crisis, there is tremendous wealth of knowledge about what it takes to address and support mental health.
There is no price one can quote for mental and physical wellness and there is no time like the present to commit to positive change.