Manage People? You Can No Longer Avoid Addressing Mental Health
Summary: Many years ago, my sage godmother said, “You never know what is happening behind closed doors.” Recently, her words rang true with new relevance.....
While tragic, the recent deaths of celebrities like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain did not come as a complete surprise to me. Mental health struggles are real, on the rise, and they don’t discriminate. Those who seemingly have it all are no less likely to suffer than people out of the public eye. These recent deaths also reminded me of the profound loneliness that people at the “top” often face. Business leaders and founders often feel that they have to live their brands 24/7; the pressure and public scrutiny invariably takes its toll.
As a trained psychologist who has spent the past 20 years working with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and corporate leaders, I’ve watched this trend unfold up close. While a few brave individuals are speaking out, most leaders I meet have yet to even acknowledge there is a problem.
Spade and Bourdain worked in different industries, but they had several things in common. They were both phenomenally successful entrepreneurs who appeared to have it all: impactful personal brands, business empires worth millions of dollars, and supportive spouses and families. In short, they were adored by fans and supported by loved ones, and they excelled at what they did. They were also both struggling with mental health and depression issues — and working hard to conceal those struggles from the public eye. (The World Health Organization put together a helpful and insightful video that refers to depression as a “black dog.”)
On a daily basis, I talk to leaders working in industries ranging from fashion to finance to entertainment. Most are struggling to cope with some degree of stress, but a growing number are also struggling with the side effects of long-term stress, including severe depression. In many respects, this is not surprising. A growing body of research suggests that exceptional individuals, including exceptionally intelligent individuals, may be at a greater risk of depression and anxiety.
This is something I have always known to be true. When I was 5 years old, I started peppering my father with questions about my grandfather, who was a successful, distinguished business leader. I knew he was the CEO of S.S. Pierce, a trustee at Williams College and a member of the Bank of Boston’s board of directors. I also knew there were no pictures of him in his home. Early on, I learned that an amazing lifetime can be eradicated by a single action when depression overpowers one’s will to live. Over four decades later, I now find myself working with corporate leaders and continuing to ask: What is the best way to tackle mental health in the workplace?
Last month, my colleague Trevor Zimmerman — the co-founder and managing partner of Blackhorn Ventures — did something simple yet extraordinary. He issued a memo to everyone who works at the firm and to all of the founders Blackhorn supports. The memo acknowledged the growing prevalence of mental health issues in the workplace. More notably, he acknowledged that in high-stress fields, including both the venture capital and startup worlds, it can be difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance and difficult to admit when you’re struggling. Most importantly, he urged his senior partners and employees to seek help if and when they need it.
My colleague’s memo was concise and powerful. By sending it out, he also took the first step toward destigmatizing mental health in the workplace. Notably, he wasn’t claiming to take away the pressures of work, but he was doing something to create a more fertile, supportive and genuine community to serve the partners, employees and founders in whom his company has chosen to invest.
Imagine how different the world would be if other leaders repeated this simple gesture. I encourage executives to find ways they, too, can destigmatize mental health issues in both their personal and work lives. If more people feel supported and not judged, we might be able to support them through the darkness and prevent more tragedies.