New Responsibility for CEOs: Mental Health

A client recently said, “The one on ones our managers are doing are turning into counseling sessions! How much is too much?” Great question.

As a guy who grew up with a single parent, a mother who was very much a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” type of gal, my natural inclinations are skewed that way. However, as a parent and business guy with decades in leadership roles with thousands of employees and now many years coaching executives, I also understand that empathy and support are very necessary. 

I’ll clue you in: I don’t have a brilliant solution. I’d just like you to think about this.

I don’t pretend to be a mental health professional, just someone who believes in inclusive, humanistic leadership. I also know, however, that for the system to work, everyone should strive to add value to the organization. And as a leader, you should insist on this.

In today’s current macro environment with bad news overwhelmingly dominating headlines, many people are struggling. I believe we need to create supportive work environments, but how much is too much? When does supportive become coddling and even generate nonproductive behavior? There’s an upside to managers asking, “How are you doing?” but when do they cross the line and try to be untrained counselors? When do they turn the conversation back to business issues: strategic priorities, achieving objectives, hard (and hopefully enjoyable!) work?

For those who believe CEOs are mostly narcissistic and money-grubbing, I’d like you to know that these questions trouble the CEOs I work with. They’re worried about their co-workers’ health and concerned that if they create a culture where the individual’s issues always supersede the company’s, we’re all screwed. 

I know my mother would’ve said that everyone needs to buck up and do their part. She’d be mostly right. But shoving issues under the rug isn’t the answer. 

After some discussion, my client decided that his answer was to engage his leadership team in a conversation—always a good place to start!—and ask them to balance individuals’ needs with business needs. He also proposed that he’d try to model the right behavior, spend a few minutes on personal issues in his one on ones, and then switch to business issues. 

The best managers will work through this issue with aplomb. It’s not either-or, but and. They’ll be empathetic and focused on getting the job done. They’ll listen intentionally and refocus activity on value creating work. They’ll understand the pain that others are going through, make accommodations where necessary and maintain focus on the long term business requirements.

Business requires engaged (and I would argue mostly happy and healthy) individuals to succeed. Individuals require successful businesses so that they can maintain employment, grow, and prosper. It’s the balance, isn’t it, that’s the tricky part?