Are You an Anxious Achiever?

Camille Preston In Conversation With Morra Aarons-Mele

Posted Oct 10, 2019

In too many high-stakes workplaces, mental health is the elephant in the room that everyone knows, but no one is willing to acknowledge. The reason for this paradox is simple. High-achieving individuals frequently suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, but talking about mental health remains a huge taboo in nearly all workplaces. 

To help bring mental health issues into the open, author and founder of Women Online, Morra Aarons-Mele, has launched a new Harvard Business Review podcast. I recently reached out to Aarons-Mele to learn more about The Anxious Achiever and to explore the urgent need to foster an open dialogue on mental health in the workplace.

What Is An “Anxious Achiever”?

Dr. Camille Preston: Who are these “anxious achievers”?

Morra Aarons-Mele: If you’re reading this article, you’re probably an anxious achiever. All I mean by this is someone who is professionally ambitious, driven, and who feels anxiety in their life. Someone who’s never done. Who worries about the “what ifs”- existential threats of life and success more than others. Who ruminates and stews and may have a harder time letting things go than others. Who might have certain fears and phobias that challenge their work life or growth in situations, like a fear of flying or social anxiety. Someone who feels things very deeply, and possibly someone who has also dealt with depression, since anxiety and depression often go together (though not always). The anxiety could be short-lived and situational, or, like me, could be something you have been dealing with for decades and possibly just who you are.

Preston: So how many anxious achievers are there out there? Are there more anxious achievers in the world than one might assume?

Aarons-Mele: Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year (NIMH). The Millennial and “Gen Z’ cohorts have been dubbed “the most anxious generation”-- and as they become the majority of our workforce they desperately need better models for leadership

Our culture tells those of us who suffer from anxiety and depression that we can’t succeed, but anxiety is part of life and certainly part of a high achiever’s life. To achiever you need to take risks, push yourself, and drive towards a goal, and anxiety is inherent to this process. Most doctors agree. If you do not feel anxiety at certain times, there is something wrong with you. Many people have situational anxiety, and many have long-standing, generalized anxiety disorders. We’re all your colleagues!

Why Do Mental Health Issues Remain a Taboo in the Workplace?

Preston: Then, why does mental health remain such a taboo in the workplace, and how can we break through this barrier?

Morra Aarons-Mele: We are still stuck on a model of leadership that’s about power. I think many leaders think talking about their anxiety or depression makes them seem weak. 

It’s great that major CEOs, like Brian Moynihan from Bank of America and Johnson and Johnson Chief Alex Gorsky care about mental health in the workplace. Leaders like them increasingly sign their names to articles that say things like, “As employers dedicated to workplace health and well-being, we have an obligation to prioritize mental health on the same level and with the same laser focus as physical health.” Here’s what I don’t know: Do any of these people have anxiety disorders? Have they ever felt so depressed they can’t get out of bed? Are they on meds? I have to wonder because about 15% of the United States is on meds and that must include some corporate executives.

There are a few leaders who are open about their struggles, but they tend to be entrepreneurs. Nasty Gal and Girlboss founder Sophia Amoruso, who is a goddess to many young Millennials, talks openly about her anxiety. Wildfang CEO--also a Millennial heroine-- Emma McIlroy says, “I don’t think I know a single founder who hasn’t had some kind of brush with depression, had suicidal thoughts or experienced some level of intense mental stress. I lived through enough of those really dark, crappy moments myself that I’m passionate about trying to figure out how anybody else going through them doesn’t have to go as dark and as low.”

But until more leaders, including corporate leaders, claim mental health, nothing will change. Good, strong, effective leadership comes in many forms, and it does not require psychological purity or perfection. Strength and success come from honesty and the ability to set good limits and ask for help. Strong leaders are those who understand their mental health and take it seriously.

How Can Leaders Help Tackle Workplace Mental Health Issues?

Preston: Beyond speaking about their own struggles, what else can leaders do to help mitigate the effects of anxiety in high-stress workplaces?

Morra Aarons-Mele: No one is asking leaders and managers to become therapists. That’s not appropriate. Managers need to create a culture where people feel safe asking for what they need, and the best way to do this is to model it yourself. Leaders don’t need to be invincible. If you’re stressed and getting self-care, let your team know. If you’re stressed and anxious and not taking care of yourself, you’re telling everyone on your staff they shouldn’t take care of themselves either. Is that really what you want?

Create a culture where people are comfortable asking colleagues, “Are you ok?” For starters, see EY’s “R U OK?” campaign. That’s all people need to ask if someone is seemingly in crisis. And then, managers need to know how to get a person’s help, whether by working with HR or an EAP or a mental health professional on staff. There should be a good process in place that people feel comfortable using.

But it all starts with ending stigma. Bring mental health into discussions. You don’t need to overshare, but if you’re comfortable as a leader sharing any of your own struggles or struggles of other leaders you admire, it can go a long way. And remember, according to a recent American Heart Association study, 96% of employees agree that mental health is as important as physical health.