Mental health: Why boards should care

Saturday, 01 July 2023

Denise Cullen

    Taking care of your mental and physical health can be challenging for time-poor directors and chairs, but the board will benefit in the long run.

    Patrice Sherrie GAICD regularly rises before dawn to ride Brisbane’s still-slumbering streets with other members of her cycling group.

    “No matter what’s happening in my professional world, I’m only one ride away from a good mood,” says Sherrie, a non-executive director with the City of Brisbane Investment Corporation, Millovate and Tonkin Consulting.

    Not one of Sherrie’s cycling buddies sits on a board — and that’s how she likes it, because the shift in gears lets her get back to business in a refreshed state.

    “I don’t talk shop with anybody, but we talk about a lot of other things,” she says. “Having another side to your life is incredibly re-energising.”

    As the post-pandemic focus on health continues, directors are increasingly asking what this means for boards.

    No longer viewed as just a collection of individuals, boards are rather seen as a team whose collective dynamic can lead to enhanced performance outcomes, with current research increasingly focused on the value of team cultural dynamics and the factors and attributes of a “healthy team”.

    As such, it is important for boards to be aware of the health issues their members may face, both physical and mental, says RJ Singh, endurance athlete and the founder of executive performance-driven podcast UltraHabits.

    Singh points out that while there’s plenty of scrutiny around how athletes maintain top form, the same attention isn’t necessarily being paid to executive or director health.

    “If they’re not looking after themselves, that could have catastrophic events in terms of what may happen to the businesses they run,” he says. “Switched-on companies understand this and take a proactive approach to maximise their people’s health.”

    Determining when and how to disclose information about a member's health, or to have a plan of action in place if there is an emergency or diagnosis, is not always that clear-cut.

    Sherrie says that board members would generally “walk over hot coals” to get to a meeting, regardless of what’s going on in their personal lives.

    The pandemic-led boom in teleconferencing facilitated this even further.

    But part of the problem with high-performing individuals is that they can successfully hide health conditions, often to their detriment (see breakout: “Putting on a game face”).

    Disclosure in these circumstances was a matter for the individual.

    “If you can undertake your duties as expected under the Corporations Act, then I don't necessarily think we have to say there's a major matter happening,” says Sherrie.

    “The test would be, are you a contributing member of the board? Are you undertaking your director’s duties as you should? Are you impacting on the dynamic of the boardroom?”

    She notes that when a director isn’t bringing their best game, it can be difficult for bystanders to know how to respond. In this instance, Sherrie suggests the chair should have a conversation with the relevant individual.

    If that isn’t happening, it might fall to a concerned board member to have a polite discussion with the chair to encourage it.

    However, it would be essential to manage privacy obligations carefully, says Sally Maitlis, professor of organisational behaviour and leadership at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

    “Health problems are sensitive matters and mental health issues in particular remain highly stigmatised in our society,” says Maitlis.

    “All information about a director’s health should be treated in confidence and shared only with those who have a legitimate need to know, with the consent of the director in question. Because of the challenges people — especially senior people, and particularly men — face in seeking help, it is important to ensure services or channels through which directors can get professional help while maintaining their privacy.”

    Clumsy attempts to “manage” a director’s health concerns could be counterproductive, generating additional stress for the individual involved.

    “The more organisations can work to destigmatise mental health issues, the less the struggles of directors and others will be [seen as] shameful and kept hidden,” says Maitlis.

    Long way to go

    Gerry Doyle GAICD, CEO at Tonkin Consulting, was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety at the age of 16.

    Since then, he has lived with chronic depression and intermittent suicidal ideation.

    “I didn’t tell anyone about my mental health issues until I was in a very senior position, because I viewed that people would probably judge me in a way that I didn’t want them to,” he says.

    Doyle generally manages his condition well by maintaining a routine, taking medication, attending medical appointments, consciously connecting with a small group of friends and attending to his physical health (see breakout: “Preventative measures”).

    But in 2015, his deteriorating mental health led to a two-week hospitalisation and he discovered how strongly stigma, paternalism and a general lack of understanding of mental health conditions still persisted at the board level.

    “I got the all-clear from my psychiatrist that I was clear to leave hospital, take a few days to adjust to being back at home and then return to work,” says Doyle.

    “When I advised the board I would be returning to work on a certain date, I received a very formal letter stating that I wasn’t allowed to [return to work] until they had been able to speak to my psychiatrist which, legally, they weren’t allowed to do without my permission. To come out of hospital and be told, ‘No, your doctor says you can return to work, but we’re not comfortable with it because we don’t understand…’ it was really challenging.”

    Doyle wrote back to say that he would, indeed, be returning to work on the date he nominated, and he reminded the board that he’d not provided permission for them to discuss his condition with his doctor or anyone else.

    He notes that the current chair and other directors are “very understanding of my mental health challenges”, but knows that his situation of relative safety isn’t common in many workplaces.

    “People accept that mental illness is very prevalent in society… but there is a massive learning curve that Australian businesses need to go through in terms of how to actually embrace someone in a supportive way so that they can contribute to the fullest of their abilities,” he says.

    Carolyn Mitchell FAICD, Tonkin’s current chair, says Doyle has influenced positive change by telling his story, and adds that there is a role for all Australian directors in this issue.

    “Workplace safety is a primary responsibility for directors and risks to psychological safety must be better identified, managed and mitigated for the benefit of the whole community,” she says.

    Putting on a game face

    Four years ago, the World Health Organization identified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” arising from chronic workplace stress.

    Burnout has since been described as an “epidemic”, with a 2022 Deloitte survey of more than 2100 employees and executives in the US, UK, Canada and Australia finding that “nearly 70 per cent of the C-suite are seriously considering quitting for a job that better supports their wellbeing”.

    Directors may be vulnerable to burnout because they are typically high achievers, used to working hard and getting results, according to Sally Maitlis, professor of organisational behaviour and leadership at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School.

    While this was an immense asset for an organisation, it could present a fast route to burnout. In a 2019 lecture, Maitlis said that one of the major difficulties in understanding how senior managers coped with mental health was the romantic view of leadership held by most of society.

    Highly successful people were assumed to be immune to mental health problems and were criticised when they proved not as “superhuman” as expected.

    A notable example was Lloyds Bank chief executive António Horta-Osório. When he took a two-month leave to take care of his mental health in 2011, many saw his behaviour as “irresponsible” and weak.

    “Depending on an individual’s history and life situation, directors may also experience depression or anxiety, the two most common mental health conditions in the world today,” says Maitlis.

    Some of her research suggests that almost two thirds (64 per cent) of senior business leaders have suffered from mental health conditions, while almost as many (58 per cent) feel it is hard to talk about mental health in their positions.

    These individuals had not previously regarded themselves as having a mental health condition.

    Some believed that their internal struggle was part of performing their role well.

    Others felt they needed to keep going while concealing their feelings by “putting their game face on”.

    Still others focused intensely on work as a way of masking and temporarily avoiding their symptoms.

    The risks of mental health issues for directors are heightened when the resources available to them are outweighed by the demands of their role — or multiple roles.

    “This may be precipitated by a difficult event in their personal or professional lives, or [it] may be a longstanding condition that a director is able to manage once aware it has resurfaced,” says Maitlis, adding that burnout is preventable if demands on directors are kept to a moderate level and they have “recovery” time after particularly intense periods.

    “While directors are expected to shoulder considerable responsibility and show resilience in the face of challenging situations, anyone in such a role who keeps going for long stretches without a break or some downtime is likely to suffer from ill-health,” she says.

    “Directors who attend to what they are feeling, emotionally and somatically, are more likely to break the cycle that is undermining their health.”

    Preventative measures

    Focusing on maintaining physical health through exercise, sleep, diet and managing stress levels can be highly supportive of mental health, says Tonkin Consulting CEO Gerry Doyle GAICD.

    Maintaining connections with other people is also crucial.

    Directors benefit from time spent away from the board table, says Tonkin non-executive director Patrice Sherrie GAICD. “Going for a ride or playing golf — just doing something completely different — takes you out of your company director’s zone and into [something else] you’ve got to focus on.”

    Executive wellbeing coach and naturopath Vesna Hrsto says maintaining good health involves having regular check-ups. “It’s one of the things that (directors) tend to avoid because they’re busy.”

    She advises that regular tests can flag the onset of health problems and prompt early intervention.

    Simple measures such as cooking and eating at home can also guard against wellbeing issues such as burnout, adds Hrsto.

    “Directors tend to eat out a lot… and even if you go for healthier food options, it’s not the same as cooking at home.”

    This article first appeared under the headline ‘Crash and Burn’ in the July 2023 issue of Company Director magazine.

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