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  • Writer's pictureMike Williams

Mental Health in SME CEOs and directors

A lot of effort has gone into raising awareness about the impact mental health issues has on our lives, and not least of which what does happen and should happen in the work place.

And we cry our for the leaders and managers of business to make sure the right approach happens in the workplace, that it isn't something to hide or attach stigma. We all agree that we deserve a healthy and safe workplace and that includes mental health.

But what about the leaders - the CEO's - the directors? These are real people with the same issues as anyone else - and with the same mental health risks. These people are just as likely as others to suffer from anxiety, excessive stress, PTSD and depression. Should these people be treated any differently than their employees and others? No - of course not.

And yet I know from my own experience, the last thing you want is your board asking "can he cope?", "is he making rational choices?", "will his illness affect the performance of the business?".

Internally your own voice starts asking "if I raise my anxiety will my directors see it as a weakness?", "will they ask me to step down?", "is this a sign of failure?". Many CEOs and directors are, by the nature of the job, very driven to success and achievement. Taking time out to address mental health issues may seem a failure. And yet the board have the same obligation to fellow directors to maintain a safe work place and apply the same policies and procedures that are expected for employees.

A recent case in point was James Packer electing to resign as a director of Crown Resorts, with news sources quoting he is "suffering from mental health issues". Whether this is the case or not for Mr Packer, it highlights some of the complexities of how a CEO or director should manage his or her own mental health.

As a director and leader, should you tell your board you are suffering from mental health issue? Should you step down because of your issue? How do you manage your own mental health? How do you deal with the stress of compliance, financial results, leading people, making sure there is enough cash to pay the wages, spending time with the family and at the same time realise your own performance is suffering.

I know as a business owner and CEO that my own personal productivity is critical in meeting client deadlines, getting the right results and making effective decisions. And when anxiety becomes crippling it is often the productivity that is the first to go. This can be handled if it happens on the "odd occassion" - but it becomes harder when it is 2 or 3 times a week.

That is when someone must ask for help, and be comfortable in speaking up. Hiding mental health issues is not the example you should set for your team, and it is worse for the business.

I have long wanted to talk to people about my own experience and I have also wanted to raise this with other directors and ask the question "what would they do?".

In many cases directors and CEO's live for the business they have created - and to leave it can represent a massive "slap in the face" and also may remove the very satisfaction that their life needs. But at the same time, mental health issues cannot go untreated and hope they disappear. In fact, if left untreated, they may worsen faster in CEO's and directors than others.

After attending a fantastic discussion group at the Accounting Business Expo in Sydney on maintaining a mentally healthy workplace I realised that the same issues apply:

  • We must encourage discussion in a supportive environment to remove any suggestion of shame, failure or stigma.

  • Directors and CEOs are people and the same "medicine" should apply.

  • Get help and talk to others (not just other directors, but friends, mentors, doctors).

  • Work a plan for you and stick to it.

My message to all CEO's and directors in the SME space - talk to someone and share - your health is worth more than the value of your business.

I have included some bullet points on strategies to cope with mental health that were discussed at this inspiring forum and hope this helps someone:

  • Connect with others

  • Exercise - one of the most important ways to help yourself

  • Express yourself

  • Get up at same time consistently

  • Find a happy place and just be present

  • Getting out and away from the business

  • Create a community so business owners don't feed alone

  • You are allowed to have good days and bad days

  • Put in place support structures (doctor, counsellor, mentor, friends, write out a mental health strategic plan which is available at Victorian Small Business commissioner website)

  • Beyond Blue - they have an app called Check In

  • Learn what your triggers are

  • Be good to yourself

  • Don't be afraid to have a conversation

Anyone who is suffering from mental health issues should seek help - regardless of their age or their role.

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