How organizational interventions sustains leaders’ mental health

Given the importance of leaders’ mental health to themselves, their team, employees, and the organization, a reasonable question is what initiatives organizations have implemented. After all, there is no shortage of organizational policies, procedures, and interventions designed to enhance employees’ mental health. Equally, there has been no shortage of empirical demonstrations of the effectiveness of such programs, targeting broad outcomes such as work stress or more specific outcomes such as burnout and sleep quality.

Some experts have reviewed the existing literature and concluded that leadership development initiatives play a causal role in employees’ well-being. Again, limited attention has been devoted to leaders’ development and mental health. An examination of the existing research shows that when this has attracted empirical scrutiny, leaders’ development and mental health is deemed worthy of study to the extent to which it could be instrumental in enhancing employee well-being. Two relatively recent initiatives exemplify this approach.

In the first, interventions have successfully taught leaders to be more supportive of their employees regarding family-supportive behaviour, with positive effects on employees’ family-to-work conflict, job satisfaction, and physical health. In the second, interventions have been implemented that effectively teach leaders to identify when their employees are experiencing mental health challenges. The importance of this second approach is evident from data showing that most organizational leaders have had to manage workplace situations in which mental health was a significant issue. What is now needed are interventions focusing on leaders’ mental health, a topic to which we return later.

Leaders’ mental health remains largely unexplored. However, this mainly presents an unusual opportunity to lay out an agenda for empirical research on the topic

Leaders’ mental health remains largely unexplored. However, this mainly presents an unusual opportunity to lay out an agenda for empirical research on the topic. In doing so, however, I recognize that the suggestions I offer are in no way exhaustive. Instead, my purpose is to provide a basis to stimulate new thinking and discussion on this critical topic.

First, while I consistently refer to leaders’ mental health throughout this article, the limitations of doing so are because most of the focus remains on the absence of leaders’ mental health or the presence of mental health problems. A better appreciation of the nature of leaders’ mental health might come from focusing on positive attributes such as optimism, hope, vigour, and self-efficacy; the presence of such attributes may be more important than the absence of mental health challenges. Some empirical support for this derives from research showing that CEOs higher in humility are more engaged in empowering others, which results in greater integration among top management teams.

Read also: The mental health of high-quality leadership

Second, even when empirical research has investigated leaders’ mental health problems, this research has been directed at subclinical levels of the phenomena of interest. Thus, we know that subclinical levels of depressive symptoms and anxiety are associated with higher levels of abusive supervision and lower levels of transformational leadership. Blood alcohol levels are sufficient to impede managerial performance; we need to understand further how clinical levels of depression and anxiety, or substance abuse disorders, affect leadership quality.

Similarly, while one night of sleep deprivation is sufficient to indirectly hurt charismatic leadership and make abusive supervision more likely to occur, chronic clinically diagnosed disorders such as sleep apnea might exert more negative or systematic effects. Understanding the impact of clinically diagnosed disorders is important, as there is no reason to suspect that the manifestation of any of these problems would be lower among leaders. Indeed, as will be discussed, the fear of being stigmatized for looking weak might be sufficient to keep leaders from seeking assistance for such problems, exacerbating their importance.

Third, while organizations justifiably seek high-quality leaders because of their effects on subordinates’ well-being and performance more generally, we need a better understanding of the emotional toll exerted on the leaders themselves. The argument has already been made that high-quality leadership is cognitively taxing. Taken together, far more empirical attention needs to be given to the largely unexplored emotional toll triggered by the demands of high-quality leadership, what some researchers appropriately refer to as the “dark side” of leadership.

Fourth, we need to know more about the transitions into and out of leadership positions. Assuming a leadership role brings considerable psychological changes, for example, increases in personal control with potential benefits for mental health, but also increases in responsibility and cognitive load and their potential threat to well-being. Circumstantial evidence for the complexity of transitions into leadership is evident in the challenges faced by many CEOs and Managers after the sudden death or exit of their predecessors. Experimental evidence of the complexities involved in transitions into leadership can be seen from research on sudden status and power gains: Individuals overreact to recent power gains when compared with counterparts who held similarly high levels of power over time. Losing a leadership position isn’t less complicated but equally important to understand: While not all individuals will transition into leadership positions, virtually all will transition out of their leadership positions.

Decades of research by experts on unemployment helps to understand why these exits could threaten mental health. While senior leaders will likely be financially secure in retirement, the underlying or psychological benefits provided by their employment in general, and their leadership position more specifically, can no longer be taken for granted. Foremost is the time structure imposed by employment and leadership responsibilities. For example, reflecting on the sudden exit of most military rulers in our nation, a former Military Head of State was quoted to have said, “I wasn’t ready to leave office”. Most people aren’t, especially leaders at the top.

Do lookout for a continuation of this article.