Since the very beginning of the pandemic, an immeasurable number of reports have come out about the impact COVID-19 lockdowns, changes to the workplace, fear and uncertainty, and all other disastrous circumstances that arose during that time have had on the state of employees’ mental health and overall wellbeing. Oft-included in those reports, ranging from studies and research papers, news headlines, to op-eds, was a call-to-action—or rather, a demand—for leaders to take charge and do anything and everything they could to support their workforce through such an unprecedented time.
This, of course, was with good reason: while a conclusive percentage would be impossible to calculate, a large number of studies contend that well over half of employees were negatively impacted mentally and emotionally—if not physically or financially—by the pandemic for a prolonged period of time, and, more importantly, that an even stronger majority of workers (87 percent, as one survey estimates) thought that action from their employers was the solution to their problems.
But amidst all of this attention paid toward employee wellbeing, another equally dire and consequential issue was developing in the background: a mental health crisis in the C-suite. In fact, a study from Oracle and Workplace Intelligence found that C-level executives not only struggled with more mental health issues compared to their employees, but they also had a much harder time adapting to virtual work- and lifestyles, had a much harder time learning new technologies, and were much more reluctant to open up about their mental health—that is, to a real person, anyway.
Even now, growing research suggests that the prevalence of mental health issues is still notably higher among C-suite executives compared to their workforce. In a recent survey of more than 2,400 CEOs, all of them were found to be suffering from extreme levels of stress. Many experts posit that burnout from having to swiftly pivot to virtual work and manage their business during a global pandemic has led to continuing mental health issues for leadership even today, while others, including those at the International Institute of Management Development, argue that too many CEOs failed to manage their own self-care during the pandemic. In fact, research from Bupa Global found that nearly two-thirds of the executives and board members they surveyed who claimed to have suffered from ill-mental health during the pandemic had resorted to unhealthy coping mechanisms—among them, drinking alcohol, gambling, and self-medicating—instead of seeking professional care. Consequentially, it’s no wonder that more than 70 percent of C-suite executives are now considering jumping ship in search of a role that better supports their wellbeing. How can one be expected to be the cure for their entire workforce’s mental ailments, when they can’t even effectively manage their own?
With that said, however, not all hope is lost. Fortunately, for most of these top executives continuing to struggle with their mental health, all they have to do is take advantage of the very benefits they have started to offer to their employees dealing with the exact same issues—and, to that effect—start taking their own advice. While thankfully more and more CEOs are stepping into their roles as protectors of their employees’ mental health with grace, too many are putting their own mental health on the backburner. But the truth is, taking care of one’s own mental health is an integral part of maintaining employee wellbeing; it all starts at the top. And no one is a better champion of this philosophy than WPO President and CEO, Alan King.
That said, I recently had a chance to sit down with King to reflect on the transformational journey leaders and their workforce have been on over the last few years, and to hear his thoughts on where he sees that journey taking us in the future in terms of mental and organizational wellness.
Read our full interview below:
Emily: When I was doing research for CEO mental health, it was somewhat 50/50 in the sense that some articles were talking about how things are better, now that the pandemic is behind us and things seem to stabilizing—obviously, in this day and age, stability really is always temporary or depending on where you are—but there were some that were saying that leaders can kind of recenter themselves and focus on moving forward, whereas other articles were saying that, perhaps, after being on overdrive and being focused on employees and making sure they’re okay, leaders are now kind of hitting a wall and realizing that they were kind of putting all their own issues on the backburner. From your perspective, which do you agree more with? Are things improving for leaders or is now really the time for them to address maybe some of the issues that they’ve been ignoring for a while?
Alan: So, I will give you my opinion—speaking for myself and also what I see for other clients of ours. I think, first of all, one of the most transformational things that happened during the pandemic is that the universality of this trauma, that every person on the planet experienced it, was important from a CEO standpoint because for many CEOs mental health has been somewhat abstract; it’s somebody else’s mental health. And what happened during the pandemic and the sustained length of the trauma for not just a matter of a few weeks or months, but for years, meant that now the CEO was in the same boat as the person who was on the line with them. And so that ability to empathize with the potential pain of someone else was remarkably altered by this sort of shared trauma experience. That is for the good, and that’s for the good both for personal mental health, but also it’s good for organizations when a CEO can recognize and empathize with what others may feel. So, I think that’s a fundamental change and impact.
To that point, I don’t think things have gotten necessarily easier. In fact, I think that what’s happened is that we recognize with the pandemic, with the war in Ukraine, with the earthquake now in Turkey, with changing climate change, with a host of things that we are in fact in a time and place where normalcy is a relative term, and that what my job is, is to make sure that my organization is as resilient as it possibly can be in a world that’s seeking to make life complicated. For that, I’ve got to up my game both for my own mental health, but I also have to up my game for my organization’s mental health. It can’t be a back room thought; it has to be part of the strategy of an effective and engaged in a productive workplace.
Emily: I feel like that’s a great opportunity if you wanted to, to maybe talk about your own experience with prioritizing your mental health over the last few years–because like you said, if when it comes to building resiliency in your workforce a lot of that is showing how to be resilient as a leader and making sure you’re taking care of yourself so that your employees have someone to look to and also someone to follow, too.
Alan: So I will tell you for me, the lockdown and sort of surviving through this period of the last few years—on the personal side—it was more about what the lack of doing what I always did enabled; it gave me the space to think and prioritize. Prior to the pandemic, four months out of the year, I was on the road. If someone said, gee, we need you for a two-hour meeting in California, I would hop on a plane and I would be there for that meeting. I traveled two or three times a year to every WPO location around the world and that was my routine and sort of living, breathing, and waking up, being in the office at 6:30 in the morning, and then going home and then doing the travel was my normal. And what the pandemic forced me to look at was that I really didn’t like that; that my quality of life was not improved by that experience. But more importantly, my business didn’t need what I thought it needed in order to be successful; everything still happened.
So, when we started exiting out of the pandemic, I had to make some real conscious decisions for my own life: Do I return to that? Or do I find something where I’m now prioritizing the time I had with my husband or with family? Was all that time I spent visiting employees not just that I was there, but that I was present and engaged and actually adding value in the fact that I was there? All of that from a personal mental health standpoint was significantly helpful.
Additionally, I found that the weekly and sometimes daily townhalls we did in the beginning of the pandemic when we were just sharing everything we were doing and communicating was extraordinarily healthy for me, and because I was getting out my own anxieties by being able to exercise, “This is what we’re doing. This is what we know. This is what we don’t know. We’re in this together; let’s work through that.” And there’s something absolutely, amazingly calming about the ability to genuinely be with colleagues who you trust and respect and support, knowing that they’re there for you. So, you know, as much as I’m not someone who likes to find silver linings in bad things, there were some tremendous gifts that came for all of us to stop, take stock of where we are, where we want to be, and then to do something about changing that.
Emily: That’s a really interesting point because, something I’ve been hearing a lot about is that we seem to be at a place where some CEOs want to do away with some of the kind of new workplace structures that we’ve developed through the pandemic. For instance, some CEOs don’t like remote work anymore and they don’t want hybrid, so now they’re in a bit of a battle with employees to get them to return to the office. And while all of that is happening, now there are studies coming out in support of the four-day workweek so now CEOs are going to have to decide what they do in response to that. What could you say to CEOs who are perhaps anxious to switch back to what we were doing prior to the pandemic, and can you speak to why we should really take in what we’ve learned, the benefits we’ve gained from the pandemic, and then move forward with them and why those help the mental health of everyone?
Alan: I’m one of those strong believers that if you don’t learn from the past, you repeat the past. You will hear me keep using the word transformational, because that’s what this experience was, and then followed by all the other things that have happened, I think it reinforced this volatile world that we’re in. Most organizations, businesses, even those in the beginning impacted heavily by the pandemic, learned how to survive. We are innately human in our ability to take stock of the world around us and adapt. And I think society progresses because those adaptations lead to better things. So look, can you be a remote police officer? Can you be a remote firefighter? No. There are certain jobs or certain requirements where a hybrid environment doesn’t work, but it didn’t work during the pandemic either. I think what we have to be careful about is not to have this nostalgia for the past erase the fact that for most of us, we learned to adapt, and in that adaptation became behavioral change. WPO thrived during this time, and at the same time certain things were not as good as they were in the past—like that ability for us to be together and learn from each other in a sort of physical space environment—so we needed to come back to something. But for that to happen, we didn’t need you to be in the office 5 days out of the week. I think that every CEO has to think about their business and they need to think about what’s working and what’s not working. But just going back to the past is, in my mind, the quickest opportunity to get it wrong, and then not successfully helping your employees understand that journey in every direction will be the end.
Emily: I kind of want to pivot back to what you had mentioned about the daily town halls and how those are really helpful—the ability to communicate with colleagues and show that you’re there for each other. Now and even before the pandemic, there was a lot of demand for leaders to start initiating more conversations about mental health with their colleagues and destigmatize talking about mental health at work and taking care of your mental health and knowing that you won’t face repercussions from your employer for prioritizing yourself. To that point, I guess my question is, what impact—from your perspective—is that having on leaders themselves, whether at WPO or elsewhere? Is there still a stigma that persists about talking about mental health and taking care of your mental health in the C-suite?
Alan: I think the answer is yes, but it’s a qualified yes. Is it the same as it was three years ago? The answer is no. If we’re dealing with the C-suite, which is still overwhelmingly male, and still overwhelmingly one race, there are challenges that are just culturally inherent that still get in the way, and this sense that strength comes from not having flaws or not having feelings, as opposed to the fact that real strength comes from truth and authenticity. I would like to say, in our industry, because of what we do, that there is less of that, and there has been much more of an empathic response and a willingness to share—if not the nitty-gritty personal details of your life—but to share what it was like for you to survive the pandemic and tell those stories. And that first conversation where you share a bit about your own struggles, makes it easier to have that second conversation, and then third conversation. But in a world where you are supposed to show strength, it’s hard to embrace weakness—only, it’s not weakness, and that’s the problem. The perception that feelings or being depressed or anxious is somehow a weakness, is the part that still needs to change. Unfortunately, it’s still the part that gets passed on in that particular life.
Emily: Definitely, and, you know, especially with trends in quiet quitting and then the Great Resignation or Reshuffle that happened in the past couple of years and seeing how poor leadership was kind of driving those trends, I feel like there’s kind of a new fear that being open about mental health issues or talking about mental health in the workplace will be seen as a weakness and that someone’s leadership or their ability to lead will come into question. So now there’s maybe more pressure on leaders to back away from those conversations, but I’m wondering if maybe you could speak to the positive impact that talking about one’s mental health can have on employee retention?
Alan: There’s lots of conversations that are about sort of a renewed emphasis, that just if you Google the number of stories about mental health and the workspace and you do it every month from let’s say January 2019 to now, you see an exponential rise in conversations that are about this. Now whether that transfers into action, that’s the question. But the fact that there were conversations—that the amount of literature that’s out there, the number of apps and organizations that are out there trying to capitalize from a business standpoint on corporate mental health—I think speaks to that particular change. More importantly, work is a microcosm of someone’s entire life. That the reason we exist as a company is that we provide services that recognize that the things that may impact your personal life don’t disappear when you walk through the door virtually or bricks-and-mortar of your office space, and that those impacts tend to be negative on productivity, negative on presenteeism, and others. So, there is a kind of logical sense around having these conversations and encouraging dialogues and support for mental health. I think it’s also that we are all human beings—we are not automatons, we are not chatbots; we are people who have good days and bad days. And the difference between whether a bad day turns into a bad week, can be about the kind of support or services or just kind words that are there. Just saying to somebody “how are you doing?” and having it be a meaningful ask, and not just simply a pleasantry, I think makes a huge difference. And we learned some of that during the pandemic. We actually listened to what people said, and said, ‘Gee, I’m sorry. What can I do to help?’ and that part of it is what’s critical.
In our industry we are a service company. We don’t manufacture things, we don’t have machinery. The people who deliver our service are people. They’re living and breathing; they have families and emotions and friends and a host of different things. If I had a factory, I would pay attention to make sure that the machines that produced my product were well maintained and were taken care of and would continue to function as necessary. In an industry where my manufacturing is done by people, then I have that same obligation. We try to compartmentalize things, even mental health, into buckets in the workplace. It’s “well I’m going to have a benefit, and I’ll respond to it this way.” It isn’t just about the things you provide, it’s about the context of the conversation. It’s about how those things are encouraged to be utilized at every level and how people participate in them. So you know, for me, it’s one of those things that’s absolutely commonsensical that you take care of every aspect that you can of your employees’ wellbeing. You’re paying for health insurance so that they are healthy, and health is not just physical, it’s emotional. And the impact on that—you already have an investment allowing the conversation to happen and encouraging that conversation—that is a critical part of it being used.
Emily: I really like how you brought up how every aspect of your life can impact your mental health. Research shows that even your sleep schedule, how well you maintain work-life balance, your financial stability, and all these other facets of your life that we address at WPO through services WPO offers, can impact the workplace. To that point, what are maybe some strategies, coping mechanisms, or behaviors that CEOs exhibit in their daily lives that they should maybe pay attention to or need to ensure that they’re taking in order to protect themselves against stress or a buildup of adverse mental health issues?
Alan: I will tell you the one thing that I’ve learned to do—I did it in my early adolescence and adulthood and then I stopped doing it the more successful that I became—was to give myself dedicated time to decompress so that my brain could shut off from processing the things I needed to do to think about what I was feeling and experiencing, not—and even here, I’m trying to find a way to say ‘not in a touchy feely kind of way’ as if touchy feely is a problem, so you know, we all have a way still to go—but to really give that time just to decompress, to recognize what went on during the day, to recognize the things I could and could not control.
One of the amazingly humbling things about the pandemic was the fact that no matter how much I huffed and puffed, no matter what I planned or what I thought I was managing, I had no control over this virus. I had no control over being unable to find toilet paper or chicken or any of those things that happened. And despite everything I tried to do, I just couldn’t control that. There is something after a while that comes from that recognition that can be very healthy, because if you spend your life trying to control every variable around you, then you stop experiencing the things that actually could add genuine value. And from a business standpoint, you miss opportunities because you’re so focused on managing the day-to-day and shifting around obstacles. And so, I think that is, you know, for me as a CEO, for others—if we’re open to it—that’s been a powerful shift. And for me every single day, some days it’s 10 minutes, some days it’s an hour, that gives me the opportunity to count, to breathe, to laugh at something I’ve done that was stupid, or to pat myself on the back if something went well.
Emily: I feel like that kind of goes back to what you said about how the conversations are happening more, maybe even if the stigma isn’t going away, they’re happening; leaders are learning to be less tight lipped, and with that they’re also learning through the pandemic and also with flexible schedules how they don’t need to run a tight ship in order to be successful. They don’t need to micromanage. They can accept setbacks or failures and accept that sometimes issues can lead to more growth. So, I guess with that and with these conversations continuing to open up across different organizations, where do you see leaders’ mental health and wellbeing or just the state of workplace mental health going in the future?
Alan: I think there are going to be many more conversations. I think there is going to be continued debate about what constitutes different parts of it. But I think you will see more and more comprehensive strategies, not just benefits—like, “Okay here’s a new benefit, it’ll fix your mental health,”—but a comprehensive strategy that involves not just leaders making decisions, but everyone in the organization having conversations that lead to meaningful change and having a part, because that’s again what came out of the pandemic. When everyone had to go virtually, I had to trust that people were working. I didn’t have a tool that said, “Okay, this person is doing this and they’re logged in at this time.” You just had to trust. And that trust was well placed. And I think it was well placed for most organizations. And so, that again sort of goes back to the idea that you feel safe to talk when you feel trusted and respected.
Conversation and association and support for mental health is a cultural shift that starts from an organization that recognizes the authentic value of every person and the equal value of every person, and as I said at the very beginning, this virus did not discriminate based on social status or leadership positions. It didn’t care who you were as long as you were a receptive host that it could replicate in. And that commonality, and that shared experience, I think can have a tremendous impact on the culture of the organizations that support benefits and the guidance. So, what, ultimately, I think is going to happen is that organizations are not just going to have strategies around mental health, organizations will begin to see that mental health, individual employee satisfaction, and engagement are key to an organization being successful and are defined within the culture and the ethos and the vision of the organization.