Healthy Leaders


Mental Health: How to Lead Well When You Are Unwell: Part 1

Sean SwabySean Swaby

This is the first part in a two part series on mental health and leading.

You have seen her, the leader in pain. In spite of being unwell, she did her job well. Another leader in pain, equally suffering, adds stress, expectation and pressure to the workplace. His pain makes his staff unwell.

How can we lead well when we feel unwell? What steps can leaders take when they face mental health problems?

Leading well?

“How can a progressive workplace support the mental wellness of their leadership?” It is more than vacation, benefit packages or office space because the leader faces significant round-the-clock pressures. Some leaders live with mental health experiences that they have dealt with for most of their lives. Other leaders, especially entrepreneurs, may feel anxious or depressed as a result of decisions they have made or other business struggles.

I am a leader and I experience bouts of depression and anxiety. Through it all, I need to get up and go to work and lead. My experience as a leader in pain has made me curious how others lead while also living with their own mental health realities.

We all seek a sanctuary to be unwell in. (David Grauwiler)

David is the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association of Alberta. I met with David to discuss his take on leadership mental health. Our conversation began with the concept of sanctuary and how each of us needs a place where we can be ourselves, even if it is messy.

For some people, their messy place may be with their therapist, at the pub, at church or at work. For most of us, we don’t have the energy to keep it together all of the time. At some point, our personal messiness spills into our work lives.

What if the messy person is in charge of the place?

Everyone knows that something is up, but no one is talking. The place becomes sick and stuffy and communication is unhealthy. “When people experience mental illness at work,” said David, “sometimes they withhold because they are not sure how others will respond.”

“There is a higher level of anxiety in talking about our mental health at work than anywhere else – so much is on the line.”

The pressure is real for staff and it can be even more intense for those in leadership. The expectation is for the leader to be the one who supports the staff, the one who steers the ship through the storms.

…Maybe we simply don’t want our leaders to have needs. Maybe it’s not only the leaders who think they should be perfect; maybe it’s also their followers who expect them to have it all together. Maybe we want the people who care for us and lead us to not be like us, to not struggle like us, because if we realize they, too, are hurting and needy, then maybe the spell – the illusion that we’re okay, that we’re in good hands – breaks. (Nadia Bolz-Webber, “Accidental Saints,” Page 46)

Sharing Our Burdens?

When you suffer, you cannot improve without sharing your burdens. But where does the leader go when they have burdens?

David talked about his experience in the mental health field and how some of his staff do their jobs and keep it professional. Their clients match the staff’s level of openness and make little progress. But when staff open up and practice selective vulnerability, it gives clients permission to do the same. “Sharing stories of lived experience is where transformations happen.”

Is there ever space for the boss to be open about his or her burdens? The answer is “That depends.” When the boss is distant and professional, it can stifle relationships. Some level of openness is vital, but how much should you share?

Joseph Rauch wrote about his experience as staff when he disclosed his own mental health issues to his boss:

If we lived in a stigma-free world, my experience of acceptance in the workplace would be common. I would not be incredibly lucky to have taken these risks and gained rather than lost.

In my personal correspondence with Joseph, he talked about how leaders face both support and pressure when they consider opening up:

  1. Leaders who are open about their mental illness set a tone. Employees who face their own mental illness will be more likely to come forward and remain with the company.
  2. Leaders are often more comfortable talking about mental illness in progressive companies and start-ups.

But one caution:

  1. Reverse stigma can occur. Bosses with mental illness may scare away employees even if the illness is not significantly affecting the work environment.

To share or not to share?

When the leader experiences mental problems, it can be a challenge to decide what to say to their staff. One approach is to close the door and share nothing. That may work but when staff sense that something is up and the leader is tight-lipped, staff can become disengaged and care even less about their jobs. Often, staff make guesses about what is going on and it makes things worse. It seems that the best answer needs to fit the leader and his or her environment.

Part II in the series is a Guide to Leadership Mental Health and will discuss how to decide when or if to share, along with practical ideas for leaders who face mental health issues.

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Sean Swaby