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Executive mental health: The missing link in workplace wellbeing

How our leaders, think, feel, find balance, gain self insight and self regulate are also one of the most unharnessed variables in organisational performance yet less than 1 in 100 leaders engage with a Psychologist.

If there was a blue wire and a red wire and one was marked Employee Mental Health and the other marked Leadership Team Mental Health, I’ve always known which one I’d head for first. It’s not what you’d think.

Saying that aloud is about as popular as pulling out your Uber Eats app to order Miss Chows half way through a sleep out fundraiser for the homeless. It’s not that employee wellbeing isn’t important.

The fastest way to remove tokenism and stigma and improve employee and organizational culture is to have leaders authentically attending to their own psychological health. Mental health is not for 'other people'. It’s the accountability of self-management before focusing on other-management. It’s benefiting from the power of a clear and focused mind before you make critical decisions for hundreds of other people.

Over the past 2 COVID-laden years, senior leaders have routinely deflected their own wellbeing to ask my advice for how they can support their people better. At best, it is unselfish leadership and gratitude - at worst, Susan David might call it toxic positivity. Me? I call it "Attend to your own oxygen mask first and you're in a much better position to help a whole plane load of people with theirs" theory.

Leaders as humans are not exempt from the more than 50% of us who will experience a mental health disorder in their working lives. They are not immune to relationships ending, financial distress, and personal and work demands that far exceed the resources available. Some of my clients’ Exco agenda items read like a time lapse video - Q1 prepping entire workforce stand-down letters. Q3 managing record skill shortages, Q4 notching up record demand coupled with record supply chain issues.

You have to ask then why less than 1% of senior leaders use their company mental health program, and less than 11% use private services.

Psychology is often minimised as mental health, and mental health portrayed as something for the non-copers of the world. Ironic when “coaching” has always been normalised, and yet the world’s most successful sports teams all have their own in-house psychologist.

Leaders, like athletes, are most at risk of high functioning anxiety, depression, chronic sleep disturbance, bi-polar type 2 and adrenal fatigue among others. They press on because they cognitively over-ride their stress and all the signs to stay just-off their tipping point. But it is not what we were built for and the fall out of numbness, burnout, relationship disconnectedness, and loss of satisfaction is probably helpful only to Dan Murphy’s shareholders.

Leadership has changed. Words like strategic, innovative, and executive presence have been replaced with vulnerability, psychological safety, courage and belonging. In a cohort that was promoted for their technical skills, is running faster than ever, and is more regulated than ever, what worked in the past doesn’t work today. They're not going to learn that in a classroom.

Executives and leaders can’t keep going the way they are going. The demands are not sustainable and retention won't be either. Having a team of Psychologists on the bench that leaders can proactively assess early signs of struggle, debrief on the way home to be present with family,, gain new insights from and adapt much faster should be a new normal - both for those who are at risk of hitting the wall finally when they know they’ve gotten through this, and for those who want to lead their teams more vibrantly into the future.


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