Tatler Asia August 2021

CEOs and Mental Health: How to Support Wellbeing at the Top


From initiating sharing sessions to taking the time to form healthy habits, here’s how CEOs can take care of their mental health in these fraught times

William Shakespeare once wrote, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”. Recited by the titular 15th-century English king in the play Henry IV, this statement encapsulates the fact that those in positions of power carry the weight of the “kingdom” on their shoulders—and it’s often not the prettiest.


Today, modern day “rulers” abound in the form of CEOs. These kings of companies appear to reign over staff, clients and customers, but in reality, they are in key positions to serve their people by being an inspirational leader, effective boss and idea-generating, money-making machine in order to achieve satisfaction, in whatever shape or form needed. This, in turn, puts CEOs at the bullseye of high-pressure environments, targeted by rising demands, deadlines, bottom lines and expectations from every direction. Plus, being at the top often means being alone, and that can take a serious toll on a CEO’s mental health, if not addressed accordingly.


The Numbers Game

According to a global study by Oracle released earlier this year, 53 per cent of C-Suite execs struggled with work-related mental health issues during the pandemic compared to 45 per cent of their employees. It may not be that wide of a gap numbers-wise, but keep in mind that a lot of the pressure to improve the mental health of employees and the state of the company in general also fills the CEO’s plate.

The study also noted that C-Suite execs had the hardest time adapting to working from home, with 85 per cent reporting challenges around virtual transitions, increased anxiety and stress, and the absence of workplace culture. It also found that they were most open to using AI for mental health support, with 73 per cent opting to talk to robots or digital assistants—revealing not only a high demand for such support, but also a greater trust in technology versus human support or interaction.


It gets lonely at the top

One of the key reasons why AI plays such a huge role in the mental health support of C-Suite execs is that it provides a ‘safe zone’—free of human judgement. This is due to the realities that CEOs may risk losing face or respect if they attempt to discuss insecurities or concerns with employees; and it may be hard to find trustworthy peers to lean on, especially in highly competitive environments. So you can imagine how hard it can be for CEOs to find someone who not only can relate to their level of work pressures and expectations, but also someone who can understand and offer sound advice for them to share their burden with.

Similar to how CEOs are heads of companies, when they go home, they’re often heads of their households and are constantly expected to be strong, capable, in charge and in control. They’re always expected to have all the answers, even when they don’t. This continual stress and relentless ‘boss mode’ is why a lot of CEOs deal with depression, acute anxiety and severe burnout, perpetually filing their feelings under ‘later’ as they deal with work crises, business strategies and people management on the daily.


How to support CEO wellbeing

Management styles have changed over the years, and it is no longer sufficient to use a big stick approach to achieve results. Today, a CEO’s contract with the company is just as psychological as it is financial, and their role is to manage both their own stress and productivity levels as well as the staffs’. How can CEOs help themselves, and how can they be supported by the people around them? Here are some suggestions:

Come to terms with flaws, failure and fatigue

Fear of flaws and ignoring fatigue are sure fire ways to fail at your job—so it is key to be open about these issues. Identify your self-proclaimed weaknesses and key energy drainers at work, then find ways to either lower the expectations for yourself or address ways you can better these situations. Overcoming the need to constantly seek perfection or raise the bar can regulate your emotions and stress levels before depression or burnout get in the way of the success you’ve spent years trying to achieve.

We are only human. Everyone needs a shoulder to lean on, and who better than a professional who is trained to listen, relate, understand and treat your specific mental and emotional needs.

Normalise mental healthcare at work

Set an example by opening up and addressing potential mental health triggers and symptoms within the workplace—both on and offline. Acknowledging the issue not only spreads awareness but cultivates an environment where employees feel safe to speak up about their mental health challenges, and seek help to treat them. Other ways a CEO can help themselves and their employees is to organise mental wellbeing programmes for the company, provide a mental health first aid training workshop, or even hire a mental health first aider—in the form of a trained counsellor—on your staff for people to turn to when stressed, overwhelmed or down.


Seek out a private wellness coach, counsellor or therapist

We are only human. Everyone needs a shoulder to lean on, and who better than a professional who is trained to listen, relate, understand and treat your specific mental and emotional needs. Wellness practitioners, life coaches (like myself) and clinical psychologists abound (both virtually and in-person), and we customise professional, trustworthy and educational sessions where CEOs can express their deepest fears and insecurities, and turn to for a credible voice of reason.


Initiate CEO sharing sessions

Great minds think alike, so why not bring these minds together for productive sessions of industry updates and an exchange of ideas. No numbers need to be discussed, just experiences, and this can come in the form of an IGTVs, webinars or Clubhouse conversations, where the public can tune in to learn valuable lessons and tips from key business leaders.


Explore in-house mentorship programmes

How can people trust you if they don’t know you? And vice versa? A good way to forge and maintain employee-employer trust is to spend a significant amount of time together, and from creating mentorship programmes, you will get to teach and impart your knowledge into the next generation (or tier) of budding managers. This will not only give employees a better idea of the pressures and challenges people at the top face, but they will also learn your preferred working and management style, which can make for valuable lessons for them to take back to their own departments and teams. For CEOs, such an exercise can result in reverse mentorship, where you can learn from managers, executives and even entry-level employees on what’s really happening on the ground level, and their ideas to help evolve, drive and even future-proof the company for the next generation.


Take time to form healthy habits for yourself

Even the strongest of leaders need rest—including good, quality sleep and peace of mind. This can only be achieved by making conscious efforts to sleep early and get enough hours in, and allocating an hour (or less or more) a day to spend some quiet with yourself—to meditate, to exercise, to read, or just to lounge around without thinking about work. The way you talk to yourself during this time is vital—be gentle with yourself, focus on where you are on this journey, and keep your eyes on the wins, not the missteps or wrong turns. And just in case you forgot, which many tend to neglect daily: Have lunch—a well-fuelled body supports healthy brain function, so don’t skip meals or replace them with caffeine. That, and take a break from your computer to stretch and rest your eyes every once in a while. A quick breathing break can do wonders.