One complex issue that deserves discussion is if there is a collective “right” to know about leaders’ mental health challenges. At one level, the answer to this seemingly simple question would be an emphatic “no!” After all, leaders do not sacrifice their right to privacy upon assuming a leadership position, not even an executive-level role, and even accepting that certain medical or psychological information might never be shared because of ethical concerns and scientific ambiguity.
Looking within the political realm, it is now generally agreed in the United States that individuals seeking the highest levels of political leadership have to share intimate details of their physical and, presumably, mental health with the public at large, who are assumed to have a right to know this information.
Might similar rights and responsibilities hold comparable roles in a non-political environment? Several factors might suggest that they do. The integrity of a market-based economy is based on all actors within the system having full access to any information that would reasonably be expected to influence their decisions or behaviours. If we accept that leaders’, executives’, and CEOs’ mental health challenges affect their behaviours and effectiveness, do leaders have an obligation to share such information and do investors have a right to such information to guide their decisions? This is indeed a fraught issue, and one response is to call for more research focused specifically on the effects of CEOs’ mental health on organisational performance.
Several potential benefits would result from leaders sharing information about a personal mental illness. Unless leaders choose to share or reveal relevant information about their mental health challenges, it becomes increasingly difficult for employees, peers, or others who care to assist or be supportive in any way. In this respect, I reiterate a suggestion offered earlier in previous articles. Specifically, interventions have shown that leaders can be trained to identify employees suffering from mental health issues. Also, a response should now be extended to help individuals at all levels of the organisation and recognise when their leaders are experiencing psychological difficulties and help them.
Added to this, if leaders continue to conceal any personal mental illness, the stigma associated with mental illness will be reinforced. In contrast, when senior leaders and top executives choose to share information about mental health challenges, they explicitly challenge any prevailing stigma, act as role models, and help create an environment in which it is more accessible and more acceptable for others to do the same. Nonetheless, we cannot underestimate the personal difficulties of doing so. The fear of disclosing such information upon seeking political office may be sufficient to persuade eminently qualified people not to pursue those positions or from seeking treatment or support when facing psychological distress once in office.
Taking a long-term historical view, mental health views in the workplace have changed significantly. Just over a century ago, precisely in 1911, Frederick Taylor argued that maximal productivity required the de-skilling of work, limiting any influence of emotional factors, and removing worker control and discretion. While Taylor’s influence endured for decades, there is almost universal agreement that psychologically healthy employees will only achieve maximal productivity; moreover, attaining mental health for employees is also seen by many as a worthy goal. However, what remains missing is a substantive understanding of leaders’ mental health, and not just in terms of its effects on employees and organisational effectiveness. Instead, leaders’ mental health deserves equal attention in the comprehensive research on employees and workplace well-being.
Finally, a model of how organisational interventions sustain leaders’ mental health could be applied to leadership development programmes targeted explicitly at relatedness need satisfaction may involve the following five components:
1. Monitoring and evaluating
Measuring senior leaders’ levels of relatedness need satisfaction and its theoretical constituents of common concern, time, joint activity, and continuity on a periodical basis would provide a basis for designing interventions at all levels of organisational structure.
2. Raise self-awareness
The better senior leaders can monitor their feelings of relatedness, such as common concern, the better they can control their behavioural responses to external stimuli and the less likely they are to engage in dysfunctional behaviour.
3. Improve understanding
The better senior leaders understand how their behaviour is linked to their feelings of common concern, time, joint activity, and continuity, the easier it will be for them to control their actions as they recognise their behavioural patterns. Like “Oh, I know this situation. I have been here before!”
4. Practice, practice, practice
New behaviour requires practice. Therefore, leadership development programmes need to provide secure environments where senior leaders can further develop themselves and their portfolio of skills by experimenting with new behavioural patterns to create common concerns, time, joint activity, and continuity experiences.
5. Timely support
Senior leaders need a point of contact they can turn to as soon as they become aware of a situation where they may find it difficult to control their behavioural responses. For example, an internal or external coach could help put senior leaders’ feelings in perspective, understand potential links, and develop constructive behavioural responses to specific common concerns, time, joint activity, and continuity experiences.