AccessEAP blog

CEOs must lead by example on workplace mental health


Mental health and wellbeing in the workplace has dominated the agenda for many companies focused on developing a healthy, sustainable and productive culture for employees, but what is missing from this conversation is the same priority for business leaders and CEOs to support their own mental health.

The culture of any organisation starts at the top, with the behaviour modelled by a company’s leader or CEO filtering down to employees. While CEOs take the world of their business on their shoulders, we have to remember that they are also people – susceptible to feeling stressed and overwhelmed by the immense workload and responsibility of running an organisation. It is this susecptibility or vulnerability, which is often difficult for leaders to acknowledge and show, thereby impacting their mental health and ability to function effectively.

As a CEO we typically have great networks and peers to discuss business matters in a confidential and safe environment; however, this also requires a certain level of trust and willingness to be open and vulnerable. I know, from my own experience as CEO of AccessEAP, that this can be difficult. On a personal level I have always been the ‘rock’ in my family, providing support through extremely harrowing times and have thus rarely shown my own vulnerability. It was not until I experienced my own period of personal difficulty, after a fire destroyed our house, that one of my wonderful team suggested I seek support from our EAP. Through this support and normalising my emotions, I was able to compartmentalise aspects of my life and then deal with them in a structured way, which I found tremendously helpful both personally and professionally.

And as a leader seeking support,  I know I am not alone. What I have increasingly noticed is the changing dialogue among CEOs. Across the table, people are starting to openly discuss mental health in the context of their own personal challenges and coping skills. At CEO forums I have attended, leaders are increasingly choosing to self disclose – acknowledging their own vulnerability as a part of being human, which sends a message to their team that it is okay to seek support for your mental health. 

Leaders are determined to remove the stigma associated with mental health and are implementing wellbeing strategies within their workplaces, not only addressing this among their employees but also within themselves. We do have a long way to go – with the statistics showing that suicide takes more lives than car fatalities and that one in five people will suffer a mental health disorder, which can include CEOs. However, I am encouraged by the efforts I am seeing among leaders to address this issue.

Key to the solution is encouraging self-care and reflection. Self-care is the enabler to any person feeling engaged, productive and effective in their role. It is especially important when you work long days and need to give so much of yourself for your company. However, before a leader can start to implement a self-care schedule, they need to honestly acknowledge, within themselves, how they are coping and performing. Integral to this assessment of one’s mental health and wellbeing, and leadership performance, is self-reflection. 

Employees, partners and anyone associated with a business looks to a CEO to set the vision and direction of the company. It also goes beyond a company’s vision to the type of behaviour to emulate within an organisation. As a CEO it is essential we live the values of the organisation and demonstrate good leadership qualities, otherwise  the entire organisation will suffer as it lacks the role model needed to form the backbone of the business.

I believe most CEOs are good at self-reflection. Part of being a successful leader is being curious about your self-understanding and behaviour, and how who you are impacts on those around you. While many CEOs may do this process already, and not label it as self-reflection, it is a sensible reminder to acknowledge how we feel – mentally, physically and emotionally – as it impacts on our capacity to lead and support others.

When it comes to seeking assistance, my only advice would be to consider it as one of the components you need to remain healthy – part of your self-care routine. We look after the body through diet and exercise, and we make time to be with family and friends, and to do the things we enjoy, so the same should be applied to the mind. What works for me is scheduling time in my diary for self-reflection so that I make the time to consider my mental health, just as I would for exercise. Acknowledging and discussing one’s mental health is simply a way to explore the mind, and hone it to one that is strong, calm and resilient. 

I choose to lead by example. At AccessEAP, our aim is to improve mental health in the workplace. That starts with me.

Sally Kirkright, CEO AccessEAP