For the past year or so, I have been giving a great deal of thought to the pressing issue of mental health. It seems that every week, mental health emerges as a foundational issue in a new area, from schools, to sports, to social issues, and yes, even in corporate boardrooms.
You may wonder: Since I recruit executives to serve on corporate boards, why am I writing about mental health? The answer is simple: Because mental health permeates the lives of everyone, everywhere, and it matters to boards!
The chances your CEO or someone on your executive team in the US is suffering from mental health challenges is one in five. Globally, one in four people are affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.
It’s critical that everyone in companies ask themselves some tough questions.
Boards: Do you have a succession plan in place for your CEO?
CEOs and Nominating Governance Committee Chairs: Do you have a roster of board candidates screened and ready to sign?
You may or may not learn or hear about specific mental health issues in your organization, but you can guarantee they are there. If they turn up, you will have to deal with them
Often behaviors and symptoms are so far below the radar that even the individual experiencing them may not recognize the signs. One contributing factor in Silicon Valley: workaholism is branded as a positive. When symptoms and signs are glossed over, pushed to another day, completely ignored or unnoticed, the result can be tragic — suicide, drug addiction or undiagnosed mental health issues such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
In 2016, Law360 reports, the EEOC resolved 5,000 disability-based claims dealing with mental health conditions, costing employers approximately $20 million.
The following two tragic stories demonstrate what can happen when mental health challenges go undetected in the workplace:
A family man and successful attorney at the Silicon Valley firm of Wilson Sonsini, whose drug addiction went unseen by family and co-workers for years, worked in a high pressure industry that may have precipitated his addiction.
The pressure to succeed or at least maintain the appearance of success permeates work cultures, including academia. The former dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine, also a family man, for years kept his anger management, drug and sex (young prostitute) addictions a closely guarded secret.
I am hopeful that change is in the air. Progressive leaders are feeling more comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities and emotional or behavioral health challenges. As they do so, that will help normalize mental health issues, particularly in the tech sector.
On July 30, 2017, in a Twitter conversation, Tesla CEO Elon Musk described his life as one of “great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress.” In response to a question, he said he is bipolar, “maybe not medically tho” To clarify, he added, “bad feelings correlate to bad events.”
Musk’s acknowledgement marked an important milestone. Slowly but surely, entrepreneurs are coming out about depression.
Last summer Tim Ferriss, the blogger, popular podcast host, and author of “The 4-Hour Work Week” and “Tools of Titans,” announced he is bipolar, suffers from depression, and had intended to commit suicide while he was a student at Princeton. Just this April, pop star Mariah Carey also revealed her struggles with bipolar disorder.
Many people stealthily function with mental health issues while others may derail. Being able and willing to assess and address weaknesses and risks in an organization is critical to the survivability of a company and it starts at the top.
Here are some things you can do to tune into your board or C-suite members’ emotional well-being:
· Create an environment of transparency so you can address issues immediately
· Socialize outside of work or board meetings — personally get to know each other
· Implement a yearly strategic planning meeting for team building and value share — engaging a leadership coach or facilitator to guide the process
In the words of Lisa Borders, president of the WNBA, “Failure is not fatal, it is feedback.”
Remember, as blogger and author Luvvie Ajayi puts it: “Everybody’s well-being is community business.” Recognize this and proceed with empathy.
Let’s make the world, including the corporate world, a better place for individuals who are suffering from mental health issues, whether silently or publicly, whether they’re managing those issues or masking them. They are doing extraordinary work right in front of your eyes and they need your support.