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Why we have to pay more attention to managers’ mental health

The effect of mental illness on employees has been well studied, but not managers. It’s time for that to change

Man standing alone in his office

(Keith Brofsky/Getty)

As news spread that the recent Germanwings tragedy was the result of a single co-pilot with a history of mental illness, traditional and social media lit up with questions asking whether his employer could have — or should have — known about his mental state. However controversial that question, it raises an even more challenging social dilemma: What about the mental health of organizational leaders?

Although employees’ mental health receives considerable attention in the popular media and the scientific literature, leaders’ mental health virtually escapes scrutiny. Indeed, so little attention is paid to leaders’ mental health, and so little known, that we would be forgiven for assuming that perhaps all leaders enjoy perfect mental health; and that even if they do not, it is of no concern either because it is of no consequence for themselves, their employees, or their organizations, or because there is simply nothing we can do about it.

These assumptions are wrong, and it’s time we pay as much attention to the mental health of organizational leaders as we do their employees—if not more. Here’s why.

Mental illness is often seen as synonymous with depression and anxiety. Our own research in both the U.S. and Canada shows that even sub-clinical levels of depression are enough to detract from transformational leadership. The negative effects on leadership go further: Both sub-clinical levels of depression and anxiety are linked with higher levels of abusive supervision.

Going beyond employee depression and anxiety, there is a well-established body of research on the causes and consequences of employees’ alcohol consumption. But what about leaders? A national probability sample of 2,805 employed adults in the U.S. showed managers were more likely to consume alcohol at work, to be under the influence of alcohol at work, or to be suffering a hangover at work when compared with employees in low-risk occupations. This is important for two reasons: First, intoxication and hangovers are known to affect managerial behavior and performance. Second, our research has shown that any negative effects of sub-clinical depression and anxiety on transformational leadership and abusive supervision are worsened by daily alcohol consumption at work.

What about sleep and mental health? While we await more research isolating the nuances inherent in the effects of sleep and leadership, we already know that poor sleep quality and quantity result in self-control problems, which in turn are associated with higher levels of abusive supervision and unethical behavior.

And then there is the problem of CEO narcissism, which is a signal of diminished mental health. This is important because the self-absorbed nature of narcissism is antithetical to caring for others, or an emphasis on employee development that characterize high quality leadership; moreover, CEOs often escape this kind of research attention. Narcissistic CEOs are rated more poorly in terms of transformational leadership and management skills, and researchers have also shown that CEOs’ narcissism significantly effects the financial decisions they make, which tend to lean heavily in the direction of attracting attention to themselves: They are prone to bold, hasty decisions, and more expensive acquisitions, a tendency that is magnified when the public focus on them is greatest. Narcissistic CEOs also negotiate and expect significantly higher compensation packages for themselves than other members of their top-management team.

These findings raise several questions and policy issues. First, all the effects on leadership behaviors and decision making described above emerge from sub-clinical levels of mental health problems. Mental health problems don’t need to rise to the level of clinical significance to detract from high quality leadership, but the negative effects would likely be worse if we were considering clinical diagnoses of depression, anxiety, sleep problems or narcissism.

Second, none of this discussion is meant to point a finger at leaders who might be experiencing mental health difficulties. Instead, just as many organizations offer services to employees experiencing mental health problems, similar resources should be provided to organizational leaders. Granted, they may be unwilling to access such resources for fear of appearing weak and vulnerable, but organizational effectiveness demands that such resources be made available, and their use encouraged.

Because leaders’ mental health affects their leadership, should we know of any mental health issues they are facing, especially in the case of senior executives? The question is not far-fetched: Each year the U.S. public receive information from the President’s annual medical physical check-up. Why? Presumably because the information is important to the general public in their future decision-making.

Given that organizational leaders and senior executives’ mental health significantly affects employees, their organizations, and indirectly many people beyond their organizations, we have a right to know about their mental health. Moreover, if we accept that the effective and efficient functioning of our stock markets assumes that investors have access to any relevant information that can affect an organization’s financial performance, information about senior leaders’ mental health can no longer legitimately be withheld. Yes, this will raise concerns about rights to privacy, but given the high stakes involved, the time has come to both support and scrutinize the mental health of organizational leaders in the same way we do the people they are expected to lead.

Julian Barling (@JulianBarling) holds the Borden Chair of Leadership at the Queen’s School of Business, and is author of The Science of Leadership: Lessons from Research for Organizational Leaders (Oxford University Press, 2014)