Business Leaders Must Open Up About Our Own Mental Health

Going public about my journey allayed my fears, and opened new opportunities.

Posted Apr 15, 2019

Nik Shuliahin/Unsplash
Source: Nik Shuliahin/Unsplash

Fellow executives, we have a problem.

There’s more and more talk about the importance of discussing mental health at work. There’s also increasing attention on the mental health of business leaders. But most of us are still reluctant to acknowledge our own struggles.

I know, because that was me. But I’m here to tell you that opening up about my mental health, including in a column for NBC News, is the best thing I could have done. I encourage you to do the same.

‘Courageous boss face’

The bullying I experienced as a child left all kinds of scars. One of the biggest was that I became obsessed with career success. I would prove my worth to myself, and to anyone else, by becoming a C-suite executive before age 30. But when I achieved that goal, and still couldn’t be happy, I realized how broken I was.

For a while, I kept this realization to myself. I was convinced that if I shared this part of myself, it would show weakness. I felt like damaged goods, and worried that would hurt my career.

The more executives I speak with these days, including through my work as a board member of Bring Change to Mind, to more I realize that most are similarly “broken.” They don’t speak up because they believe they have to always be “strong” in every way — putting on what I call “courageous boss face.”

But the truth is admitting vulnerability is courageous.

Standing up to the stigmas

When I kept my problems a secret, I began to realize that for years I had stigmatized other people around mental health.

When I knew someone was facing psychological challenges, I questioned whether or not to give them certain assignments. I want them to be safe, I thought. I don’t want to burden them with additional stress. This was wrong, of course.

I realized that keeping my own anxiety and depression a secret was just another way of giving in to the stigmas. It was time to stop. Time to get real and pragmatic about mental health being just like physical health — something I could address with no shame.

Making it public at work

Now, my twice-weekly therapy sessions are written on my work calendar for everyone to see. I even get playful with it, using the line, “I’ve got 99 problems, but making time to see my therapist isn’t one of them.”

Colleagues, including some employees who report to me, now come to me to talk about their challenges. They tell me it’s helpful to see the work that I’m doing.

My fears were unfounded. I have not paid a career price for this. Granted, I was already a C-suite executive and therefore in a position of power and influence at my organization. But that’s all the more reason that I should take these actions. And the same is true for executives in organizations across the country and around the world.

The steps to take

The World Economic Forum recently invited me to offer steps executives can take to show that they, and their companies, value and respect mental health. I offered five, including: set an example; have an open door; offer services (including mental health coverage on insurance and employee assistance programs that provide 24/7 support); encourage work-life balance; and offer regular anonymous surveys to discover problems and track results.

I’ve also called on investors to ask executives about mental health programs, to make sure it remains front of mind.

We have a lot of work to do. A survey published by mentalhelp.net found that only 10% of people are comfortable discussing mental health with a current or prospective employer — and only 2% are “very comfortable” doing so. Virtually all (98%) said mentally ill people are stigmatized and discriminated against.

As leaders in the workplace, the onus is on us to lead the change. The healthier our workplaces are, the more productive they are. If our employees can practice mindfulness more regularly, they’ll be more likely to want to stay and build their careers in our organizations. The business incentives are clear.

But the human incentives are even more powerful. Ending these stigmas is the right thing to do. We’re in a position to make that happen. And we can all reap the rewards.