Dare to share the stories of your mental health struggles at work, Daryl Tol, Executive Vice President of One Mind, a brain health non-profit organisation, urged alumni gathered on the IMD campus in Lausanne for the Annual International Alumni Event 2021.

“No one is going to risk opening up unless leaders tell their stories,” he said, urging executives to be authentic by leading with vulnerability and talking about their personal struggles. “There is no value in pretending you are perfect.”

Tol described how he started experiencing debilitating panic attacks while studying at college but hid his illness from friends, family and later his employers for fear of being perceived as weak and missing out on the next promotion or opportunity.

It was only once he had climbed to the top of the leadership ladder and was running a $6 billion division of AdventHealth that Tol felt comfortable opening up about his mental health challenges during a speech at his son’s university.

While the COVID crisis has increased the burden on our mental health, rates of stress, anxiety and sadness were already rising at a fast pace before the pandemic. The number of people reporting feeling stressed at work the previous day rose to 38% in 2019, up from 31% a decade earlier. In 2020, this rose to 43%.

“It’s clear to us that while this theme was already an issue for many people over the past few years the COVID crisis has placed it much more front and centre of attention for leaders and organisations,” said Jean-François Manzoni, IMD President and Nestlé Professor, as he opened the event, the first-time it has been hosted face-to-face since the pandemic began.

IMD is welcoming more than 200 alumni onto campus for the two-day event, A Path to Resilience: Advancing Executive and Organizational Mental Health and Wellbeing which features sessions on topics including building resilience, mindfulness in the workplace and strategizing in your sleep.

 

Blind spots

Studies show that the adverse mental health effects of disasters last longer than the physical effects coming at a huge future cost to companies, Tol said. But there are still big blind spots among leaders on the topic of mental health.

While 71% say their companies are doing well and supporting mental health in the workplace, only 27% of frontline workers agree, he said.

This is an issue for companies since employees rank an organization who cares about employees’ wellbeing in the top three criteria when looking for a job, and among millennials and Generation Z this rises to number one.

Moreover, people who have purpose are better able to deal with the challenges thrown at them.

He urged alumni present at the gathering to encourage their companies to address mental health problems directly without hiding behind cover words such as ‘burnout’ and ‘fatigue’.

Tol offered the following tips for immediate impact:

  • Be authentic; lead with vulnerability and be the example for an open and supportive culture
  • Build momentum starting with your leadership team and ensure that dialogue is ongoing
  • Use your community network so that others will come forward to share
  • Create awareness; train leaders to be empathetic and identify early symptoms
  • Take care of your team; assess their workloads and reprioritize where needed
  • Assess workplace culture; employees can handle massive cognitive loads when they feel a sense of purpose and control

As a final note, Tol said companies that want to excel must be prepared to support and help people who struggle, adding he would not have been as successful in his career without some of the wiring that created his anxiety disorder.

“Companies that want the most powerful and brilliant minds have to be willing to embrace the struggle side,” he said.