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leadership lab

Bill Howatt is chief research and development officer of work force productivity, Morneau Shepell, Toronto.

Leadership can be exciting, especially when the team is working well together, the product or service is being well received by customers and the executive leadership is happy with your results. And if you find your work meaningful and it gives you a deep sense of purpose, this makes it much more rewarding.

But getting to the above state and maintaining it can be challenging. It's not uncommon for leaders to be like their employees; they have good days, bad days and stressful periods that, if not dealt with, can create mental-health challenges. Leaders may engage in unhealthy behaviours such as drinking or overeating to try to feel better.

Human-capital-support systems are typically built for the average employee. This article provides guidance for leaders who are not sure what type of professional support they could benefit from with respect to executive/leadership coaching or mental-health support.

I started my early career providing mental-health support and went on to teach others how to become professional counsellors. Then, after an enjoyable golf trip to Hawaii with a two-year pit stop in Chapel Hill, N.C., I landed on Wall Street for more than a decade, where one of my regular roles was providing coaching to leaders, up to the CEO level.

Since I had credentials in both coaching and counselling, leaders would come to me for what they said was coaching. However, more than once I quickly told them that they needed professional counselling, not just coaching. Setting professional boundaries as a coach is important, so I would refer them to a mental-health professional and, if appropriate, support them as a coach to help them with their day-to-day job.

In some cases, I might take on the role of professional counsellor and bring in an executive coach. Whatever role I took, it was important not to mix it with another role. It's helpful for leaders to understand what kind or combination of professional help may be of value, based on current interests and needs.

Emotions can run high under constant work or life stress, and it can be challenging to figure out the root cause of stress. It's beneficial to understand that there's a divide between professional-health and personal-health challenges that will determine the kind of support that makes most sense.

For example:

  • Professional health: A large project isn’t going as planned; results for two quarters are off; the project is over budget; the firm is experiencing increased turnover; and a pending promotion may be blocked. This type of challenge, if not addressed, can result in increased risks to job security, personal job satisfaction, title or compensation.
  • Personal health: There are challenges with a leader’s marriage; they’re not getting along with their oldest child; work stress is compounding and they begin to compensate by drinking a bit more each night, up from two to four or more drinks a day. The leader notices they’re losing blocks of time, falling down more, ending up in compromising positions, and being late and unprepared for meetings. These are signs of risk for mental-health issues, including addictions. Common symptoms associated with this profile are sleepless nights and increased periods of anxiety or depression that result in feeling overwhelmed and not sure what to do.
  • Accountability: You ultimately own your career and mental health. Every top athlete has acknowledged their coach, meaning they proudly admit that their success would not have happened if they hadn’t embraced support.

Leaders who don't recognize when they could benefit from personal or professional support put themselves, their loved ones and their organization at risk. Asking for support is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of humility, strength and responsibility. In the end, you're accountable to be at your best, and if you know you're not, then taking action is smart business.

When we're open to learning and willing to do the work, good things can happen for us and the people around us at home and work. Avoiding and denying can result in unhappy endings. There are key factors that should be considered.

When you notice something is off or not as you want with your personal life, professional life or both, the following checklist can help you act:

  • Motivation level: Personal and professional support requires your motivation and willingness to participate.
  • Coping skills: Picking the right kind of support, which will always be confidential, can help you solve problems and make good decisions to achieve your desired result.
  • Complete needs assessment: By answering the Q12 quick screen for evaluating your professional support needs, you can get some insight into your needs and interests. A baseline can be helpful to determine next steps.
  • Mental health first: Coaching is most beneficial when your mental health is where you want it. If you’re unsure and have questions about your mental health, begin with mental-health support.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the continuing Leadership Lab series.

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