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How to identify and tackle mental health problems in executives

Nigel Cannings, CTO - Intelligent Voice

Any individual in a leadership role always has an immense amount of responsibility and pressure on them. Making million or even billion-pound decisions, working long hours and managing employees whether that is a large or small number can result in significant stress.   

Addiction specialists point out that often executives turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with stress and mental health issues. They might have a couple of drinks at the end of a long work day to help them unwind and before long this becomes habitual or they may become reliant on other substances to stay alert and focussed. And a 2015 study shows an abnormally high incidence of mental health and substance abuse issues amongst entrepreneurs, far higher than the general population, particularly ADHD and bipolar disorder.

This is not something I have written about publicly before, although many people who know me are aware of this. About 20 years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the culmination of which was me having a complete breakdown in the lobby of a hotel while on a business trip. I was convinced that the Devil and his hordes were occupying one complete wall of an atrium. I had previously sought help for my condition, but the medication provided by my GP (who told me it was best not to go around telling people that I had a serious mental condition) had made things worse not better.  

An admission of weakness

Like many people in the same boat, I was determined to keep working in the hope that I could just get through it. Confessing to a mental health problem seemed like an admission of weakness. 

I was lucky in that I had private medical insurance that paid for excellent specialist care and two weeks “over the cuckoo nest” when I got back from my trip. I had critical illness insurance in place too, and my boss was immensely supportive, which allowed me to take six months off work to recover and ensured that I did not suffer financially or career-wise.  

While that employer support may not have been typical at the time, nowadays mental health issues can be considered a disability under the law if they have a ‘substantial adverse effect on the life of an employee, it lasts at least 12 months (or is expected to) and affects someone’s normal day-to-day activities. And discriminating against someone with a disability is against the law.

Family became the most important thing for me at that time. Trust me, because mental illness carries a huge stigma it is not an easy conversation to have with anyone, but I was lucky to have a very supportive family structure. My wife in particular, who was looking after two small children at the time, got me through the whole thing. When I got married, my best man said that life with me would never be boring, but I don’t think even he could have predicted quite how far that might apply!

While bipolar disorder is not caused by stress (it is organic disease), it can be severely exacerbated or triggered by it. The nature of the disease means that you are constantly trying to do the impossible (and sometimes achieving it), which ends up in a vicious circle as the depressive side kicks in and you hate yourself for not being able to function.

Everyone is different

Each battle with mental illness is different. If you are lucky, you find good treatment, and you can continue to function as normal (or as my doctor says in my case “normal for Nigel”). I was terrified that treatment would take away my ‘edge’, the thing I thought made me better than anyone else at what I did. In retrospect, what I found is that treatment took away a piece of me as a person that I wasn’t overly fond of but didn’t stop me being who I felt I really was. Twenty years later, with a few exceptions in the early years, I remain stable and happy and am very much in remission, with a medication and therapy regime that works for me. Not everyone is as lucky. 

Not getting access to the right treatment, or the right drugs, can leave people in an awful situation. For example, suicide is very common among bipolar sufferers, and many people are undiagnosed. If you know someone who has mood swings, who veers between brilliance and creativity, and depression and listlessness, they may suffer from bipolar disorder. If they seem delusionally high at some points, and crashingly low at others, it’s a near certainty, and the need for treatment is immediate. Unfortunately, treatment takes time to kick in, and many people who are bipolar are resistant to taking medication because they fear losing the high that comes with the disease

We all recognise that mental health is an issue, and we promise ourselves that we are committed to helping overcome it. However, few companies have systems in place to check the mental wellbeing -of their employees, nor do they encourage employees to take the time they need to decompress for their jobs and find the right work/life balance, because that interferes with ‘getting the job done’.  

Tricky conversations

I must admit that even as someone who has suffered from a severe mental illness, I allow myself to be blind to it from time to time. I try to look out for those of my staff who might be struggling, and intervene where I can, but it’s not an easy conversation to have. 

But as employers, we must recognise that mental health is as important as physical, and make sure employees have regular one-to-ones with their line managers where they can talk about any issues they might be experiencing. It’s also an idea to appoint a mental health champion. 

At Intelligent Voice, we have recently introduced a mental health helpline, with company funded therapy sessions to help encourage people who do feel overwhelmed to talk to someone. 

Most people who have a problem don’t seek help until it is far too late, and they often don’t take kindly to other people ‘interfering’ and suggesting that they are struggling. I have put several friendships on the line over the years when I have suggested that people seek psychiatric help, but to me it was better to lose a friend trying to help, than to stand by and do nothing. Incidentally, it helped in both cases.

Can technology help? If we were told by a robot that we were depressed and needed to seek help, would we listen? The world of AI has opened new avenues of research to help automatically detect signs of burnout and depression. Some are aimed at particularly vulnerable groups, such as emergency services personnel and their call centre handlers, who can face horrific situations. 

But there is wider research looking at how changes in spoken speech, for example, can help detect signs of depression. So maybe we can help employees by monitoring how they sound on phone and video calls, to help spot early signs of stress that could lead to problems down the road.

The privacy issue

This opens a massive privacy can of worms. Some workers (those in jobs particularly vulnerable to stress), might welcome it, if it means they can temporarily move to less onerous roles for a period, with no stigma attached. But others may fear that the company is using the technology to find a way of firing ‘weak’ employees, in favour of those who are more able to cope. It is important that the introduction of any such technology is properly communicated to employees.

In all honesty, I’m not sure how I would have felt if I had been told I was at risk of a breakdown by a human or a computer. Looking back, I wish I had known what I was going through so that I could have acted on it. I would have saved myself and my loved ones a great deal of hurt and heartache, but that is easy for me to say with the benefit of hindsight. I was brought up in a work culture that allowed no weakness. Employees worked hard and played hard. Late nights and weekends were part and parcel, as were visits to the pub afterwards. In my 20s, I thrived in that environment, but what I didn’t realise was how vulnerable it made me in my 30s. If I could have had a role model at the time—someone who stood up and said, “Yes, it’s okay to admit you’re overwhelmed and that you need help. That doesn’t make you less of a person or bad at your job”, that person would have been hugely beneficial.

If someone reading this article is experiencing stress and burn out or suspects they have a mental health condition that requires treatment, I hope the experiences I have outlined help you to come forward. Do it; your health, your productivity, your happiness and your family life will all benefit.

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