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Talia Varley holds a master of public health from Harvard University and MD from McMaster University. Dr. Varley is the physician lead for advisory services at Cleveland Clinic Canada, a medical centre where physicians, wellness experts and management consultants help organizations improve employee health and manage organizational risk.

We know, from the statistics we see and the clients we talk to, that it’s not just front-line staff who are having mental-health challenges today. The pandemic has affected us all, including the C-suite executives who lead our companies and guide our people. Recently, more than 80 per cent of corporate leaders reported exhaustion and more than half had considered leaving or reducing their roles. These are alarming statistics that reveal widespread potential for personal struggles, underperformance and loss of leadership at the highest levels of our businesses.

The C-suite enigma

Traditionally, C-suite leaders consider themselves positive role models who provide others with help, support and issues resolution. They are high-functioning, capable people who have likely developed strong coping mechanisms. Yet because of these coping mechanisms, they may fail to recognize or fully address their own challenges. In these cases, other C-suite executives, human resources leaders and board directors are positioned to recognize when executives are struggling and provide support.

Unfortunately, the signs of distress in high-performing C-suite leaders are often overlooked. We see issues build up over time and lead to behaviours that are out of character. An introvert may become talkative or an extrovert quiet and withdrawn. Misplaced emotions such as anger, self-doubt, cynicism or self-criticism crop up. Leaders become impatient, frustrated and irritable with others. They move quickly to why an idea won’t work, rather than why it will. Attention to detail suffers. All are signs that a senior executive may need help.

Empathy and understanding

Approaching a senior leader to discuss personal issues requires careful consideration, as these discussions can create distress, anxiety and disengagement. Whoever talks to the executive must do so from a position of trust and genuine concern for their well-being – a board director who has not had prior interaction is not best positioned to lead the discussion. As physicians, we often use the “SPIKES” approach for difficult discussions, and it similarly applies here:

  • Setting is key. The discussion should be in a private location, with no distractions.
  • Request and assess the executive’s perception of the situation.
  • Prompt the executive to invite discussion (Is this a good time to share my perspective with you?). Note the changes in the executive that have been observed (I have seen … or I noticed something has changed and wanted to check in with you.). To be clear, this discussion is about changes in the executive, not changes in financial or corporate performance.
  • Share knowledge of the changes and the situation in a clear and concise manner.
  • Provide empathy and support, with the understanding that the executive may need time to process and acknowledge the information.
  • Share a strategy for next steps, such as available benefits, further meetings and support options.

Supports vary, and work

While options for support are extensive, every executive’s situation is different. A leadership role can be temporarily downshifted without necessitating a change in title. Team capacity can be increased. Time off or a sabbatical will benefit some executives while others could feel isolated and disconnected. For many, especially as we try to find a “new normal,” it’s about finding balance in a non-crisis world.

This may include small group or individual coaching to help senior executives find their centre again and restore healthy habits such as sleep, exercise and nutrition that are foundational for physical and cognitive health and peak performance. For executives with conditions such as depression, access to mental-health professionals is essential. All treatment needs to be free of stigma and delivered in a way that makes executives feel protected and supported.

Organizations and executives alike need to know that appropriate, thoughtful supports truly work – C-suite leaders can come back better than ever.

We have worked with C-suite executives across multiple industries who had become dependent on alcohol or other substances or were experiencing severe mental-health challenges. Their companies did not penalize them. Instead, they provided access to the required supports. Executives not only improved their work habits, they repaired their relationships with children, deepened their connections with their employers, became HR advocates and change champions, and acted as mentors.

C-suite executives and the companies they lead both benefit when an organization prioritizes the well-being of its leaders. This means creating a culture of caring, fostering relationships based on trust, and providing the time, space and skills to help senior leaders care for themselves. It includes asking a simple question: “How are you doing?” And really listening to the answer.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.