Sally Maitlis shares insights into senior leaders’ experiences of depression and anxiety

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The fourth and last talk in 2019’s Green Templeton Lectures on Leadership series, convened by Governing Body Fellow Professor Sue Dopson, was called, “Hidden from view: senior leaders’ experiences of depression and anxiety”. Green Templeton’s Carlos Outeiral, DPhil in Statistics, reports from the evening:

On Thursday 14 February, Sally Maitlis, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Leadership at University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, closed Green Templeton’s 2019 Lectures on Leadership with an eye-opening account of senior executives’ struggle with common mental health conditions. Her lecture unveiled the experiences of depression and anxiety in senior leaders, exploring the impact of stigma around mental health, and strategies to reduce it.

Only recently have Western societies started to acknowledge the central role of mental welfare in human health. Approximately one in four people in Britain suffer from a mental health condition; in the working population, it is one in six. However, although 31% of employees have been diagnosed with a common mental health condition, and 77% suffered from symptoms, only 11% of these have disclosed their problem to their line manager. Mental health is still highly stigmatised.

In Britain, organisations spend approximately 30 billion GBP on mental health-related issues, including staff replacement, absenteeism and reduced productivity due to presenteeism. Presenteeism is worrying because it means people are attending work while being unable to function properly. This figure is likely understated due to underreporting since, because of the stigma, employees often claim physical illnesses – such as headaches – to call in sick. British society spends about 70 billion GBP (4.5% of British GDP) in mental health costs, including disability benefits and additional strain on the NHS.

There are many challenges in the workplace for those with common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. People are often ignorant about mental health, and even when they are not, most managers lack the training to support employees who are suffering. More importantly, stigma and fear of discrimination often lead employees to hide and repress their problems, which only serves to reinforce them. Understanding and learning to address these issues is key, not only to safeguard the health of the workforce, but also to make organisations more productive.

Our understanding of mental health in the workplace is slowly improving. Many organisations are becoming aware of the need to look after their employees’ mental well-being. Importantly, the 2019 World Economic Forum dedicated an entire panel exclusively to mental health and its impact in society. However, although we are learning about mental health in the workforce, we still know very little about how senior leaders deal with very common problems like anxiety and depression. Understanding this better and identifying what organisations can do to create healthier environments for their leaders as well as the rest of the workforce is the main inspiration of Professor Maitlis’ research.

A key motive for this study is that leaders may experience mental health issues at work differently from other people, with an impact that is far-reaching. A leader’s role is to lead and motivate, and they are responsible for the organisation’s continuing viability. This places them under considerable and constant pressure. When leaders experience hardship, this can significantly affect the wellbeing of many others, as has been shown in several studies. Yet senior leaders are notably difficult to study, both due to their scarcity in relative terms and the challenge of gaining access to them.

One of the major difficulties in understanding how senior managers cope with mental health is the romantic view of leadership held by most of society – and even managers themselves. Particularly, it seems that highly successful people are assumed to be immune to mental health problems, and they are criticised when they are not as “superhuman” as is expected of them. As a notable example, when the CEO of Lloyds took a 2-month leave to take care of his mental health in 2011, many saw this behaviour as “irresponsible” and weak. Even though the visibility of these problems is growing, there is still a long way to go in recognising them fairly.

The research by Professor Maitlis is currently in progress and the preliminary insights offered in her lecture were based on the data she has collected so far. This includes eleven interviews with senior executives (eight men and three women) across private and public sector organisations; she also interviewed several mental health professionals, HR specialists, and executive coaches. This body of data was augmented by secondary sources: autobiographies from some leaders with mental health conditions, as well as publicly available material from the internet.

All the participants in this study are high achievers – smart, ambitious and successful individuals, in senior roles in organisations with demanding cultures. From the outside, it is difficult to imagine the difficult battle fought within their minds (here comes the romantic view of leadership again), which is itself a complicating factor for mental health conditions.

One finding from this ongoing study is that most of these highly successful individuals had not previously regarded themselves as having a mental health condition, believing that their internal struggle was inherent to performing their role well. Many claimed that their job was, in fact, to keep going regardless of the difficulties; even more importantly, since they are leaders and must project the image that everything is going well, they should conceal their feelings as well as they can. In the words of one interviewee, when they are at work they must “put their game face on”.

Ignoring mental health difficulties can exacerbate them further, but this becomes particularly problematic when combined with another pattern that Professor Maitlis identified frequently in her data. Most of the leaders, when experiencing anxiety or depression, found that focusing intensely on their work allowed them to ignore the problem and temporarily feel better. Although work can provide meaning and a valuable set of routines when people are struggling, in many of the cases in this study, individuals became very disconnected from their emotional experience. This meant that they were almost numb to their feelings of anxiety, sadness, fear and exhaustion, which intensified as they worked harder.

The interplay of experiencing anxiety, concealing it (from others, but also from oneself) and losing oneself in work builds up an increasing pressure. In many of the leaders studied, this pressure escalated until it was released through a “revelatory experience” – often a panic attack, but sometimes an external factor, such as marital difficulties – that made the individual aware of the problem. Although this experience made them understand (and afterwards take care of) their mental health, it came at a high personal cost, as did the vicious cycle that preceded it.

The question we need to address is how organisations can prevent or disrupt this cycle. We can educate and train people throughout the organisation to recognise signs of common mental health conditions, and support those who are struggling. For leaders, we can implement health and well-being as core elements of leadership development programmes. We also need to rethink the criteria for successful leadership and share stories to normalise the experience of anxiety and depression and work. This can be helpful in a move to shift organisational cultures and narratives around mental health. Above all, we need to understand that leaders are also human, and acknowledge the inherent role that mental health plays in the workplace and all areas of life.

Professor Sally Maitlis is still looking for more participants to include in her study. If you are a senior manager in an organisation and would be interested to be interviewed, please do contact her at sally.maitlis@sbs.ox.ac.uk. Interviews are completely confidential, and all your data will be kept and reported in an anonymous form.

The other lectures in the 2019 GTC Lectures on Leadership series were:

A historical view on leadership and change with Warwick’s Professor Keith Grint
Thursday 17 January at 18:00
Podcast and lecture report

Educating leaders with Saïd’s Dr Andrew White and Jon Stokes
Thursday 31 January at 18:00
Lecture report

Insights from female CEOs on their leadership journey with Dr Andromachi Athanasopoulou
Thursday 7 February at 18:00
Podcast and lecture report

Created: 5 March 2019