Brisbane Psychologist Helen D’Silva offers support and strategies for those coping with executive stress.
Research has shown in recent times that Australians are among those who commit to the most overtime in comparison with many western countries and working societies. It comes as no surprise then, that Australians use far less sick leave to address mental illness in comparison with our European friends.
In an audit conducted by IPSOS Australia of over 1000 Australians (including 32% being managers), aged 16-64, results revealed:
- Almost double the number of Australians had not told their employer their depression was the reason for their time off, as compared with workers surveyed in Europe. Almost 1 in 2 who hadn’t informed their employer (48%) felt they would put their job at risk if they told their employer the reason for time off.
- The average number of working days that were taken by Australians diagnosed with depression, during their last episode, was 6 days compared to 35.9 days reported by European workers.
And this is just research results coming from one exploratory study!
Depression & Anxiety in Executives
The existence of depression and anxiety is far more prevalent at senior levels of leadership than one might think, and that’s only taking into account the incidences that are recorded and documented.
Despite the education and awareness that is accessible today, there still exists a strong fear for those experiencing symptoms – employees, senior managers and CEOs alike. Unlike physical ailments, depression and anxiety have less “tangible” indicators and sources for their development. Unlike the flu virus which can be identified under a microscope from a swab sample being taken, depression and anxiety can develop within an individual for reasons they often cannot identify or pinpoint.
There is no proven cause of depression. However, common catalysts for expression of depression symptoms include:
- Unwanted, unmanageable workplace stress:
- communication challenges;
- workplace relationship clashes, conflict;
- a toxic, non-supportive negative environment;
- receiving poor leadership;
- bullying and harassment;
- changes in the workplace (retrenchment, forced secondments etc.);
- unwanted role changes;
- inadequate systems and processes to perform work at the required/desired levels.
- Prolonged physical ailments:
- affect the individual’s ability to function at a level they enjoy;
- constantly getting cold and flu;
- physical impairments resulting from an accident, fall, injury, etc;
- diagnosis of a terminal illness or newly diagnosed permanent physical condition, requiring permanent lifestyle adjustment and modifications;
- experiencing chronic pain.
- Abuse/uncontrolled use of alcohol and drugs:
- substance overuse/misuse and dependency can lead to and result from depression;
- Certain personality types that are more prevalent to experience depression:
- perfectionist tendencies;
- self-critical, negatively critical, low self-esteem;
- higher sensitivity to receiving criticism;
- greater tendencies to worry.
- Significant life events/changes:
- death of a loved one;
- separation and divorce;
- separation from loved ones resulting from relocation (eg armed forces deployment);
- going from school/education institutions into the workforce;
and many more.
The experience of depression and anxiety for individuals is a unique experience from person to person. For senior leaders, CEOs and entrepreneurs some of the following indicators give clues:
- development of sleep disorders, waking and feeling extremely fatigued;
- higher prevalence of suicidal thoughts and inability to identify why they feel this way;
- relationship problems, arguments and disagreements become a regular feature, decreased libido and interest in sexual intimacy;
- listlessness, significant loss in ability to make decisions, poor decision-making;
- communication becomes less effective, in the workplace, at home and in social situations;
- lower tolerance in situations requiring problem-solving;
- anger outbursts in the workplace;
- increase in substance abuse;
- withdrawal and disengagement from work colleagues during working hours, work-related functions, but still working to keep busy; the overwhelming feeling that could arise when “sitting still” could be too much to handle;
- onset of panic attacks when there has been no history of these in the past;
- loss of interest in exercise if exercising regularly was routine;
- disinterest in family activities, withdrawing from family and social occasions and wanting to do so more than usual if opting out of social occasions is usually “normal”.
Signs of Executive Stress
For men and women, reaching out for help and support can be quite different. Generally speaking, the differences can look like this:
How to Handle the Pressure at the Top
For those who identify with some of the things above, here are some strategies that can help:
- Form an Alliance
Choose to connect. Work with someone you trust and have confidence in, who can help you re-evaluate and determine what’s working for you in the current situation and mental state you find yourself in. Your “Alliance” includes General Practitioners, Psychologists, Psychiatrists and support groups. These professionals are trained to help assess and reflect back to you where your current starting point is, and work with you on what your next steps should be.
There is much research that documents the benefits and improvement when communication occurs; an email, a phone call, a text message. Social support is the single, greatest asset in developing and moving toward a positive state of mind. By connecting, through whatever means, you greatly increase the likelihood and shorten the time frame of your road to recovery.
- Re-evaluate and Re-prioritise
The idea behind this is to look at the things you can identify in your working life and social life that are working well, that you might still gain enjoyment from. These things now become a high priority if they weren’t seen as such before. The focus is to stay active and engaged in those things which bring enjoyment.
There is research that shows that doing this, aids rewiring of your brain’s mechanics to foster and develop more connections with those memories, cognitions and feelings that are good.
- Audit your Environment
With your brain’s trust alliance, review your environment around you. Your thoughts, values, behaviour, attitudes and perceptions are bombarded by many things around you that you do not notice consciously, second to second.
When you are feeling symptoms of depression and/or anxiety, the way you perceive your world is likely to be different to when you are feeling well. Work with your alliance to do an audit of your surroundings and ask yourself:
- What are the influences in my environment that are conducive to my feeling the way I am right now?
- What do I identify as stressors, if any? People? Situations? Work systems? Material I read? Topics on TV? Newsfeeds and podcasts?
Work with your alliance to review what these are and identify if the way they show up in your life, can be changed. Different choices might need to be made here.
- Move, Physically – change your state/position
There is a plethora of research that demonstrates the positive effects on the mind and body when exercise becomes a regular feature of the day. When we are looking to combat feelings of depression and anxiety, releasing tension and emotion through exercise helps the body to process a release of this. In choosing to be more active, as opposed to deciding whether one feels like it, we choose to create a physical state which results in feeling more well.
If getting out of bed in the morning becomes challenging and undertaking normal day-to-day activities becomes overwhelming, a change of state/position is what to aim for. From sitting to standing, to walking a little … regularly. Perhaps even getting up to make a cup of tea is the change of state. Re-setting goals/targets is essential. Prolonged occurrence of experiencing challenges such as these, for more than a couple of weeks, means an appointment to see a psychologist and/or GP is high priority.
In working with a psychologist, you can learn how you manage sleep differently. In experiencing depressive and anxiety symptoms, the tendency to sleep more can often become common. The way you usually get to sleep and wake up the next day, may no longer be working for you. To fall asleep might require a modification of your pre-sleep rituals and behaviours. To wake up, a different approach is also likely to be needed.
Our circadian rhythm is affected by daylight patterns, and these changing daylight patterns also affect on our moods and emotional regulators. In general, we are likely to experience better sleep when aiming to get to bed at 10pm and waking around 6 – 7am. Research shows that our most beneficial restful sleep usually takes place between approximately 10pm and 2am.
Your activities before bed should be aimed at being restful and conducive to being in a relaxed state of mind. Music is a great mood influencer and can have powerful effects upon inducing sleep as well as inducing other states of mind. But choosing the right music is important.
In waking up, you may need to create a behaviour that makes it difficult for you to avoid getting out of bed. Setting two alarms – that are placed far enough from your bed, that you will have to get up to turn them off – might be necessary.
Stigma or no stigma about the presence of mental illness in the workplace at executive leadership levels, you still get to make the choice to change your current state and circumstances. In most cases, the first step is choosing to make first contact with your “alliance”.
Author: Helen D’Silva, B Sc (Hons), M Psych (Sport and Exercise).
Having worked in senior leadership, high-pressure roles herself and with business owners, managing directors and senior leaders experiencing mental hardship in the senior ranks, Helen understands and can appreciate the pressures, demands and risks associated with senior leadership. Specialising in psychology for peak performance in corporate environments, sport and exercise, she particularly enjoys working with individuals to create and maintain balance that brings healthy satisfaction across all areas of life.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Helen D’Silva, you can book online or call Vision Psychology (Mt Gravatt) on 1800 877 924.