How to Cope with Mental Health Issues When You're the Boss

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Written by: Guest | Best Company Editorial Team

Last Updated: July 1st, 2020

Guest Post by Heather Baker

One of the most positive changes of the last decade has been the slow shift in attitudes towards mental illness in the workplace. From celebrities like Brad Pitt and Lady Gaga, to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, talking about your personal struggles with mental health has become much less of a taboo. There’s still a lot of work to do, but it’s encouraging to note that more and more companies are putting employee well-being at the top of their agendas and making more of an effort to create mental-health friendly workplaces. We’re seeing flexible hours, time off for counseling, company socials focused on well-being rather than drinking, and more line managers being trained in how to sensitively handle mental health issues.

This is great news for employees, but what does it mean for those in positions of leadership?

I was unfortunate in that I suffered from postnatal depression and anxiety after the births of both my children. It was an all-consuming, exhausting, miserable burden at a time that should have been one of the best in my life. As the CEO of TopLine Comms and TopLine Film, I was surprised at the toll this took on me as a leader. When you’re running a business and managing a team, one of your key responsibilities is to inspire people, stay positive, and keep the energy up. This is almost impossible when you are drowning in the type of depression that makes it hard to get out of bed, shower, and brush your hair before you leave for work. Add to that the need to wear breastfeeding-friendly clothes (that always seemed to make me feel frumpy), and the fact that I still have baby weight to lose (14 months after having my second child) and the situation is even worse — not only did I feel like I’d lost my mojo completely, but I also felt I didn’t look like an inspirational leader. It was tough!

But here are four things I did that really helped me cope with the stress:

Consider being open with your team

At the height of my depression, I felt the world was closing in on me. I was gradually returning to work, and I was feeling extreme pressure from within my team to take on tasks that would previously have been quite easy for me. However, I didn’t always feel able to attend a new business meeting, go through a heavy appraisal meeting, or fly to Switzerland to build relationships with clients. The pressure was getting too much. So, at a bit of a loss I sent an email to my team letting them know that I was suffering and that I needed more time and more support. I really put myself out there (even my partner was against this move initially). But I felt I had nothing to lose and I’m really glad I did it. The response from my team was overwhelmingly positive and supportive. More than that, a number of people opened up about their own struggles with anxiety and depression — I would never have known otherwise. In fact I’m now much more sensitive to people’s mental health issues at work, and we’ve just won an award for excellence in mental well-being for our team.

Take care of you first

If you need more time for yoga, therapy, meditation or exercise, you need to find a way to take it. This might take a little time away from the business, but it’s better for everyone in the long run. You can’t function at your best when you are tortured by anxiety and depression, so anything you can do to get you back to normal is worth prioritizing. I can’t do yoga after work because I have two children, which means I sometimes need a longer lunch break. I’ve put a lot of extra hours into the business over the last decade, and I feel comfortable taking some of that back right now.

Share beyond your team if necessary

If the pressure is coming in from clients, suppliers, investors, or peers, help them understand where you’re coming from by giving them a heads up that you’re not working at full capacity. It’s not as risky as it sounds — everyone you work with is also human. If you had a physical illness you wouldn’t hide it from them. So why should you hide a mental illness? I was very open with anyone who requested a meeting that I was working reduced hours to cope with depression and had to keep my calendar clear.

Develop coping mechanisms for work

Anxiety or depression can strike at any time, so I found it useful to have a catalogue of CBT-based coping mechanisms to help me get through particularly stressful periods. Simple breathing exercises can be done at your desk. If you can’t find a quiet spot to meditate, then perhaps try binaural beats — they can really help calm you.

In conclusion, even for people who suffer from chronic depression and anxiety, the really severe periods are usually temporary. So sit tight, and know you’re not alone: there’s research that shows that those at the top might be particularly prone. If you can be open about it then you might find that openness reciprocated.

Heather Baker is founder and CEO of TopLine Film and TopLine Comms, a failed minimalist, reformed wine drinker, dog owner, and mother of two little boys.

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