An Honest Conversation About Nonprofit Leadership and Mental Health

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We often think of people in leadership roles as the epitome of success. They often exude confidence and poise and many have larger than life personalities. However, people who have risen to executive positions in a nonprofit organization are no less human than teachers, athletes, engineers or registered nurses.

While society is beginning to come to terms with its position on mental health and starting to challenge deep-seated associations like “weakness,” when it comes to the executive suite, discussing emotional well-being and mental health openly is still a difficult subject. Though the country’s top nonprofit leaders enjoy the rewards of career and financial success, in getting to that point they open the floodgates to mental health issues and the resulting stigma that still surrounds them.

According to a new study from University of Texas at Austin by sociologist Tetyana Pudrovska, there is a strong link between job authority and depression in women. “Women with job authority — the ability to hire, fire, and influence pay — have significantly more symptoms of depression than women without this power,” said Pudrovska, the lead author of the study. “In contrast, men with job authority have fewer symptoms of depression than men without such power.”

Interestingly, the study reports that men with job authority are less depressed than men without it. However, some studies indicate that men underreport depressive symptoms due to problematic ways of thinking about what does or doesn’t constitute “manliness.”

In Nicola Brown’s recent article on leadership and mental health in The Content Standard Newsletter, several studies were mentioned to have shown that CEOs may be depressed at more than double the rate of the general public.

So why is a discussion of mental health so absent when we climb the ranks?

In my new book Moppin’ Floors to CEO, I recounted my own turbulent personal story, which includes bouts of childhood abuse (emotional and physical) and a stint in a psychiatric hospital at the age of twenty. Despite my setbacks, I went from mopping floors at a hotel to being the CEO of a major medical center and CEO of my own leadership coaching and executive search firm. I felt strongly that investing in my emotional health was the key to my personal growth, happiness, and success. Through my personal story, I provided examples of how negative emotions can be turned into positive drivers. But the answer lies in properly acknowledging and addressing the need for more open acceptance and discussion of mental health in leadership positions.

When it comes to mental health, high-pressure roles and leadership traits, the following are four tips taken from my personal experience to help you and your colleagues manage the pressures of the executive office:

  1. Don’t suffer alone. This may seem like common sense, but far too many people are ashamed of admitting they are depressed and stressed out. Reach out to a close friend and confide in them; build a support system. You can also reach out to someone in your HR department, faith-based organization, or a local mental health center to ask for support.
  2. Learn to manage your stress. Stress is a common condition of today’s world, however, when it leads to depression and anxiety it can interfere in your personal and professional responsibilities. Focus on those things in the workplace that you can control and you’ll greatly reduce the load you’re having to bear.
  3. Understand that depression is extremely common and very treatable. It’s not a character flaw. There is still too much stigma in our society about mental health issues, but not that long ago, people who suffered from cancer also felt stigmatized. Times are changing.
  4. Try to maintain a balanced life. Work is important, but you can’t be married to your job. Try to develop friendships, exercise and eat healthy foods, and take time off for vacations. We all need to de-stress ourselves on a regular basis. Don’t wait until Friday afternoon to plan your weekend, start much earlier in the week.

In addition to managing your own mental health successfully, nonprofit leaders should be responsible for creating an environment that helps to end the stigma of mental health in the workplace.

  1. Hold regular check-in meetings with employees, or have HR conduct meetings to assess how employees are getting on with their work and the workplace. Often just having a regular outlet to air grievances can abate issues that build up over time. In addition, allow anonymous comments, suggestions, and concerns from employees. Often people don’t feel comfortable talking about problems at work, so give them a way to be heard where they don’t feel threatened or vulnerable.
  2. Educate yourself. The best way to maintain positive mental health in yourself and your employees at work is to educate yourself on what certain situations look like. Learn the early warning signs for someone who is stressed, anxious, or getting into conflicts at work. Be proactive about reaching out to that employee—suggest taking some time off, or offer to schedule a meeting with yourself or HR. Above all make sure you’re hearing their concerns.
  3. Be careful in the language you use around mental health. Words like “psycho” and “crazy,” even when used casually or jokingly, can be extremely hurtful. Educate your employees about their language in the workplace.
  4. Reward employees for small acts of kindness. It’s easy to overlook the beneficial effects of helping out with a mundane task or giving a compliment. Encourage employees to perform a couple of small acts of kindness each week, even online through the office social media network. The effort will pay off tenfold.
  5. Uphold work-life balance. This is tough in the current nonprofit sector landscape. The tendency is to think that the later employees stay the more work they’ll get done and the faster the organization will grow. In fact, it can be the opposite. Overworked employees are often less productive and more stressed, and these issues compound over time. Organizations are more efficient and effective when they uphold values around work-life balance.

The job of a nonprofit leader is a tough one without the stigma surrounding mental health. Funding pressures, difficult board members, competition for the donor dollar are just a few of the many challenges leaders all face every day in the nonprofit sector. With that stigma, it becomes crippling for many. The first step to creating solutions is acknowledging there’s a problem—mental health needn’t be a taboo topic.

About author

Dennis Miller

Dennis Miller

Dennis C. Miller is a nationally recognized nonprofit leadership coach with over 30 years of experience. The former CEO of a major medical center and healthcare foundation, Dennis works with leaders of nonprofit organizations who want a more motivated board, inspirational leadership, and an engaged strategic vision with greater levels of achievement and measurable results. Dennis is an expert in board governance, leadership development and succession planning. Dennis has advised hundreds of nonprofit organizations across the country on how to unlock their true potential. He is a sought-after motivational speaker, retreat facilitator, leadership performance coach, author and executive search consultant for the nonprofit sector.

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