Depression and anxiety are common among CEOs. Some researchers estimate the rate of depression for business leaders at double the rate of the general population. In 2008, former Fortune 500 CEO Philip Burguieres estimated that 50% of CEOs, at some time in their lives, experience depression.
CEOs experience at least as much anxiety — or more — as anyone else in the company, and it is critical to be aware when depression or anxiety impacts their lives. Not only can this impact judgment and decision-making, but depression and anxiety can also trickle down into the company. This issue is especially important now, as depression, anxiety and suicide are all on the rise.
The trickle-down effect of depression and anxiety can have profound consequences on the top management team and the employees they are managing. To decrease this trickle-down effect, CEOs may be well advised to do the following:
1. Talk about it. Discuss mental health openly at work and create a culture of empathy, support and open, anonymous reporting about this.
Emotions can spread biologically. Even if the CEO is not overtly exhibiting sadness or anxiety, our brains are wired so that those around us can pick up on our emotions. That’s because we all have mirror neurons that are sensitized to reflect the emotions of others.
Depression and anxiety disrupt leader empathy. When CEOs are depressed, they might overreact to the distress of others. This makes others less comfortable about sharing their feelings. This shutdown starts to spread and defines the culture.
When workers are less productive, execution on strategies might be slowed and products might be delayed in coming to market. For instance, when depression presents as anger, this can disrupt thinking and increase accident rates at work, thereby disrupting work patterns and productivity. Also, if the trickle-down effect gets to the customer-facing people at work, customers’ mirror neurons will pick up this depression or anxiety, too. While a certain amount of moodiness or anxiety might make people more creative, too much depression and anxiety can shut down creativity in the workforce. Customers will sense this in the quality of products, too.
3. Take your workplace temperature. Check in with the chief human resources officer about how your own mood and the mood of the organization are faring.
Depression makes it difficult to see things from others’ points of view. When CEOs are depressed, they find it difficult to walk in anyone else’s shoes. For instance, they might not understand the impact of work overload on another person. This misunderstanding can also spread throughout the organization, where everyone’s sensitivity to others is reduced.
You will notice this trickle-down effect when you notice that the mood of the entire organization is changing. People dread coming to work. They are jittery or gloomy. They avoid the CEO. And depression and anxiety can increase absenteeism. In some instances, people might show up to work but not be present enough to work productively.
4. Have your employees’ backs. Devise an online platform for anonymous reports on depression or anxiety within the organization.
The trickle-down does not respect age, gender, social class or role in the company. But those people with genetic vulnerabilities to depression or anxiety and those with multiple other stressors might also be more susceptible to this trickle-down effect. Eventually, this can impact customers as well.
If CEOs pay close attention to the trickle-down effect, they can prevent the emotional and financial costs of depression and anxiety in the workplace.