It’s tough at the top: A focus on the mental health of business leaders

Here, David Cliff, managing director of Gedanken, highlights the problems of neglecting the mental health of business leaders.

The old cliché of ‘it’s tough at the top’ frequently appears redundant, replaced by the more modern concepts of robustness, emotional intelligence, or even bold-faced machismo to offset the truth of the pressures that exist.

It’s almost as though we’ve mixed concepts of good mental health and self-care with the inevitable need to continue to maintain corporate confidence where life and business must be continually ‘talked up,’ lest the market become jittery, or one’s customers become uncertain.

Some of the strongest people I have worked with as a coach, or have known personally, have been able to display the personal strength to admit to areas of difficulty both in their organisations, their own lives and at times, their own inner demons. So many people operate often in lonely, senior positions where the buck stops with them.

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Where does the support come from?

There are few opportunities to gain support from confidants or to explore their own fears and concerns as part of the decision-making process. For the mature leader, these things are an essential part of enlightened decision-making. There is great value in seeing one’s corporate journey as part of a personal journey, not simply an act of self-denial for the corporate good.

It’s a conspiracy really. The people around us don’t really want to hear about the trials and tribulations we have, because they have problems of their own. A leader, who is open about personal difficulties or needing advice and support, confronts others with their own humanity, because they have problems of their own.

It’s small wonder that only 14 per cent of organisations have robust mental health policies. Those that do have had an opportunity to debate and evaluate the value of positive mental health to staff recruitment and retention, to productivity, to brand image, and indeed, how people interact in a customer-facing way.

And of course, there are the intrinsic benefits of a moral employer providing support to their staff as a contribution to society at large.

What is professional stress?

Professional stress is experienced differently across an organisation, depending on job role. For those on the front line, it could be for example the stresses of dealing with aggressive customers or high-performance demands. For those in the boardroom, it could be the challenges of appeasing shareholders, ever more fierce international competition, Brexit uncertainties, or aggressive takeover bids.

Those at the top are ultimately accountable, and that is a stressful concept to deal with. Whilst encouraging support, development, and mental health care is essential for all staff, it’s particularly important that those at the top do not neglect their own. Failure to do this will result in denial, avoidance, and practices that can be toxic as they filter down through the organisation.


This is where external support through coaching is important. Coaching is distinct from mentoring, which is more about someone transmitting skills and insights from direct experience. It’s also different to, and not necessarily as time-consuming as, long-term psychotherapy. It simply offers a safe space for an exploration of what is inhibiting performance and preventing people functioning at their optimum level.

It’s less about the removal of anxiety or depression and more about identifying the tools and resources to work at an ideal level whilst at the same time ensuring that one’s own needs are met.

Companies are psychological systems, and the personal well-being of the individuals therein is critical to the healthy functioning of the organisation. It needs to have the energy and drive to muster flexibility in an ever-changing world. Such leadership cannot be provided by guarded, emotionally controlled individuals in denial.

Don’t neglect yourself

Such leadership requires emotional intelligence, deep personal awareness, and ability to consider the implications of what’s ahead. Such leadership calls for an ability to understand and analyse the ‘now’ in not only a professional sense, but also a psychological sense. This typically doesn’t happen in the boardroom or alone in one’s office.

It can happen, however, with external support, when ethically and competently provided by a professional coach. This gives a real chance for people to undertake an analysis of the complex leadership task they are undertaking and the organisational dynamics they must impact upon.

Increasingly, research is suggesting that coaching has its place alongside psychotherapy in promoting the mental well-being of individuals however there will always be an academic debate on this. If coaching can enhance performance, improve personal growth and development, and support them in the addressing of a balanced self-appraisal from which skills and competencies can further develop, all of these things are conducive to an effective organisation with great leaders at the helm.

It’s surprising, therefore, that in times of hardship, the need to maximise the bottom line et cetera, such support is seen as a luxury rather than a necessity and is often the first to be cut from budgets. Indeed, in some organisations, coaches are only brought in as a remedial activity when problems are identified in individuals rather than as a pro-active measure.

More than 80 per cent of the FTSE top 100 companies employ coaching culture of one form or another as they consider the benefits to be self-evident. The same considerations should also be given to smaller businesses. In smaller organisations, leaders often have to take on a multitude of tasks as they lack the role specialisation of larger organisations. Revenues and reserves are typically smaller and the day-to-day challenges can lead to a long hours culture and the danger of being burdened.

At times like this, it’s all too easy not to be able to see the wood for the trees, and the opportunity for an external confident in order to work through this is critical. Equally, one needs someone external to challenge those times when one becomes so mired with day-to-day routine that there is little time to contemplate the strategic, the transformative, long-term planning and what organisational maturity looks like.

Barry Manilow sang ‘wouldn’t that be nice being lonely together’. In the corporate world that just doesn’t happen and introducing an external coach can make a huge difference in addressing the enormous pressures that leaders face. Everyone deserves that investment.

David Cliff is managing director of Gedanken.

Further reading on mental health

David Cliff

Dr David Cliff

Dr David Cliff is managing director of Gedanken.

Related Topics

Mental health

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