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Mental illness, the leadership taboo

Stress and mental illness within leaders is still a taboo subject. However, the reality is that there are an increasing number of people within organisations living with stress and mental illness.

AXA PPP Healthcare recently surveyed 1,000 senior business managers, managing directors, chief executives and owners as well as 1,000 employees, and found that one in four people said that they had suffered from mental illness at some point in a year. However, the same survey found that 69 per cent of bosses did not believe mental illness warranted time off work.

This contrast does not make any sense. Stress, anxiety and depression are clearly commonplace, and yet there is denial. It is reported that as well as causing personal suffering, mental illness costs UK businesses alone £26 billion annually.


By looking at someone, you cannot see stress or mental illness. It is not like a broken leg that is obvious by the cast, and a person with a mental illness does not use a walking stick. Mental illness is something that happens behind the eyes of the individual, and it is only when the symptoms become overwhelming that the illness is obvious. But it is an illness like any other.

Despite a quarter of people living with mental illness, there is a culture of silence. People are afraid of the stigma. Mental illness can be seen as a weakness in the macho tough organisational world. People with mental illness can be stigmatised and face discrimination. For example, the assumption might be that they are not tough enough to take on a new project, or they don’t have what it takes for promotion to a more senior role. “Suck it up, and get on with it” seems to be the mantra from both individuals and organisations, hiding the truth and turning away from the reality.

What is causing the increase in mental illness; is it simply a case of more reporting and greater availability of data? Well, this does not seem to be the case.

For the people I coach, I have noticed an increase in the number reporting back-to-back meetings from 8.00am all the way through the day into the evening. Within international businesses, the time difference means that people are on conference calls early morning and late at night. These situations are not uncommon, and seem to becoming the norm. How many times have you sent an email and received an auto-response that says something along the lines of “I am away on holiday with limited access to email”? Why doesn’t the auto-reply say “…with no access to email”?

Another feature I’ve noticed is people arriving at coaching meetings and placing down two mobile phones on the table in front of them; one for business and one for personal use. It has been reported that there is an “epidemic’ of email checking that is damaging our health and productivity. There is no switching off; there is the constant expectation and need to be connected and respond instantly. Presenteeism, or the need to always be present at work, appears to be as important now as it did in the Victorian times.

So what is the way forward from this position? The first thing is to accept the reality. That is mental illness is present within every organisation. This is an illness, and like any other it is resolvable with appropriate treatment. There is no stigma.

As coaches we need to support leaders who are living with mental illness, referring them to other professionals as needed. But we also need to provide a challenge, a challenge to speak out, a challenge to speak up, and a challenge to change the status quo of presenteesim and replace this with new cultural norms.

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