Senior managers face a unique cocktail of challenges, all potentially damaging to their own wellbeing
24 October 2018

This year’s World Mental Health Day on 10 October was hard to miss. Thanks in part to the work of charities, the issue of mental health is a talking point. Nowhere is this more true than in the workplace, where many people’s mental health problems are compounded by the conditions under which they operate.

We might have driven wider awareness on the issue, but our own sector has a pretty mixed record itself when it comes to supporting people with mental health problems. Amnesty International has recently carried out an investigation after facing allegations that two members of its staff committed suicide because of the pressure of their roles. In the past year, at least one charity chief executive has publicly stood aside, citing mental health reasons.

Mental health is both the reason I came into the sector and one of the main reasons I left a chief executive role. My late teens and early twenties were spent in fairly frequent contact with mental health services because of my overwhelming anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. The roots of this lay both in my make-up and in abusive experiences at school about which I need say no more, save to say that the person involved was removed from their role.

Part of “recovery” for me was volunteering. Here I discovered my vocation, and I went on to found and become chief executive of a successful charity that became the biggest part of VoiceAbility. This really was the making of me, the point at which my problems began to feel manageable.

But as time went on I realised the chief executive job was a mental health hazard. As the organisation grew, I could feel the anxiety returning. I felt, in my heart, that my innate fragility, combined with the unrelenting pressure, didn’t suit me that well. Put simply, I couldn’t sleep well at night and worried, obsessively, about work, even at weekends and on holidays.

The unique cocktail facing me in this sector of extreme financial uncertainty, never-ending HR problems and doubt over whether I was making sufficient impact forced me to make a choice: carry on in the job or try to become healthier (and wealthier too, as money had joined my list of worries).

So, although the third sector “saved” me, it also did for me too after a while. In terms of risk, the third sector chief executive role scores unusually high. You experience acute loneliness, the cliché being true of life at the top. Isolation is now well understood as a risk factor for mental health. Indeed, one reason I set up Social Club, a peer-network of chief executives in our sector, was to help to them to navigate the psychological road-humps of this kind of job.

Then there are the hours. I know few chief executives who put in fewer than 50 hours a week. In fact, 60 or even 70 aren’t uncommon. Some people weather this surprisingly well, though they often struggle to find time to exercise or sleep properly, no doubt storing up health problems for later life. For others, long hours slowly chip away at their mental wellbeing, until suddenly they realise they aren’t the person they were any more.

Does it need to be like this? In a word, no. When last year I wrote my book How to Change the World, about how to be a successful chief executive, one of the overwhelming findings was how much better successful chief executives are at protecting their mental health. Decent sleep. Exercise. Frequent holidays. Proper hobbies. Time with friends and family. All of these featured heavily in the lives of the most effective people in our sector.

So why do so many senior leaders still struggle? Two reasons stand out. The first is controversial, but I think our sector contains a lot of people, like me, who end up here because of vulnerabilities. We want to save the world, but we are also, on some level, trying to save ourselves. There is nothing wrong with this, but it’s something we need to recognise when considering what makes many in our workforce tick.

Second, we take a laissez-faire approach to mental health, seeing it as the sole responsibility of the individual rather than a workplace safety issue. We think nothing of spending thousands making office spaces physically safe for people, but we allow practices such as chronic overwork and endless deadlines to corrode the mental health of our senior people.

The answers, I hope, are fairly clear. We should expect our top people to work hard and to deliver the goods, but boards also need to recognise the hazards that come with the job. They should actively encourage chief executives to mitigate those risks by proper self-management.

This also makes good business sense. The cost to a charity of their chief executive quitting or becoming unable to work is massive, setting aside the human cost. Compare such catastrophic losses against, say, the costs of coaching, more flexible working or additional leave and it doesn’t bear comparison.

We owe it to our organisations and the people leading them to take mental health in the workplace far more seriously. We will end up with better organisations and more chief executives who feel sustainable in their jobs.

We don’t want any more tragedies. Let’s do what we preach and show the way on mental health.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is an independent adviser to chief executives and boards, and leads Social Club, a network of social-purpose leaders