Mental Health Challenges Faced by Leaders

Back in January of 2016, I announced on my podcast, Creating Disney Magic, that I was battling anxiety. It is the most open and vulnerable I have been on my podcast, but I thought if it could help one person, it would be worth it.

If you haven’t heard that podcast episode, you can find it here.

Leaders deal with stress, depression, and anxiety and often feel like they can’t talk about it. You may be surprised how many people around you are silently dealing with one of these problems.

Below is an article written by Cassie Steele. She covers the tough subject of mental health of leaders. If her words can help just one person, I am happy to help spread the message.


Mental illness costs employers around $225.8 billion every year, owing to absenteeism, regularly missing work, or working while ill. However, although vast research has been carried out on employees’ mental health, little has been said about the effects of leaders’ mental health on their own performance and behavior. As found by J Barling et al in a 2016 study published in the Journal of Occupational Psychology, when leaders struggle with mental health issues, there can be big implications on an organizational and personal level. Leaders are viewed as responsible for the well-being of their staff but somehow, it is wrongly assumed that their own health ‘takes care of itself’ simply because they hold an important position in a company.

How Can Depression and Anxiety Affect Leadership?

In the above study, researchers note that even when leaders have sub-clinical depression (i.e. when they have symptoms of depression without actually being clinically depressed), their behavior can change in many ways. They can find it harder to concentrate and make decisions, and they can have a negative view of people and situations. This can affect their leadership style and hamper their role as an inspiring, transformational figure in a company. Other studies have also shown a link between a leader’s anxiety and reports by their subordinates indicating more abusive supervision. Mental illness can also affect sleep, which in turn can affect behavior and ability.

How Can Companies Take a Preventive Stance?

Most companies have programs in place to take care of their employee’s mental health. However, more needs to be done to ensure leaders are also protected. Thus, leaders could be invited to take part in mental health awareness programs, so they can be as aware of early signs of mental distress. As noted by Dunn et al in a 2008 study, leaders can be encouraged to take part in these programs by giving them a token payment, which they can then donate to those in their team. This would partially remove the stigma that leaders may face when it comes to mental health since they often feel that they are role models that need to portray positivity and strength.

Giving Leaders Leeway

Spirituality – a sense of connection to others and to a universal energy – can also be empowering. Recent studies have shown that spiritual people are happier and better able to withstand life’s vicissitudes, primarily because they find support from others. These days, millennials, in particular, are seeking spirituality in whole new ways – everything from yoga and meditation to tarot readings. Connection is key to a sense of wellbeing but it is also something that leaders should feel free to approach in a way that means something to them.

Following a Mental Health Program

Leaders should be encouraged to be proactive when it comes to preventing mental illness. Thus, they should draft a plan which aims to reduce stress, improve sleep, embrace their personal definition of spirituality (if useful to them) and quell depression. Their plan could include scheduling regular appointments with a counselor during the most stressful times of a project, planning short breaks such as nature walks on a daily basis, and working from home on quiet days. Because leaders have such busy schedules, these activities need to be scheduled in and respected if they are to have a positive effect.

Much research has been carried out in ways to reduce employee stress yet sadly, leaders are often expected to be ‘unbreakable’. In fact, the nature of their job often means they are constantly facing tough goals and having to make difficult decisions. Therefore, sleep, relaxation, spiritual well-being, connection, and time spent in nature should be seen as important components of personal and professional happiness.