Ignoring depression is bad business

The corporate world acts as if mental illness doesn't exist - and that doesn't solve anything, says Katarina Skoberne.

by Katarina Skoberne
Last Updated: 05 Aug 2015

I am a businessperson who has suffered depression. I’ve managed it for as long as I can remember and, while it has been a cause of suffering for me, my work has, ironically, in many ways benefited. I’ve built and led three ventures. I’ve been named one of the 1,000 most influential British business people.

My work was what kept me afloat. It was a numbing mechanism, as was the success that accompanied it. All three of my companies were started from scratch - startups require a particular type of personality, much of which coincides with depressive or bipolar traits. Nassir Ghaemi, in his work A First Rate Madness, writes about the correlation of leadership in extreme circumstances with traits borne of mental health challenges. Resilience, empathy, courage and creativity are qualities that people who are long-term sufferers of mental health problems usually develop in abundance, and are especially able to apply in extraordinary circumstances.

Startups are chronically on the edge and that suited me, while masking the real challenges. I benefitted as well – at least in the short-term. But my colleagues often did not. I was a workaholic and suffered from an unhealthy perfectionism fostered by impostor syndrome. Until I learned to manage that I was not always the most pleasant leader to be around.

And learning to manage yourself is key – in all circumstances and particularly with mental health. Know your strengths and weaknesses and build on that. The challenge in business, though, as in wider society, is the stigma attached to mental illness. One in three people will experience it, but there is only a handful of ‘outed’ businesspeople and public figures.

Mental illness does not have a one-stop solution, so carries with it elements of doubt. Business struggles with uncertainty and, at first glance, including executives’ mental challenges in the mix can only exacerbate that. We expect extraordinary leadership, requiring traits far beyond the average, but would like it delivered by average personalities.

In the corporate world it is as if mental illness doesn’t exist. If anyone, it is usually founding chief executives who reveal their struggles. Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, inherited his business from his father and for a long time effectively only had himself to answer to. He was a famously ‘temperamental’ CEO, as documented by a 1992 Time article entitled ‘The Taming of Ted Turner’. His abuse of his board members only abated when he started managing his illness. The other ‘outed’ chief execs and chairpeople we come across in the media are usually preceded by ‘former’ and even they are few.

I can’t think of a single business issue that’s been resolved by ignoring depression. The ostrich mentality cannot benefit performance: addressing mental health is a performance must for companies. Yet we choose to deal with a challenge that will befall a third of our businesspeople by pretending it doesn’t exist.

Every businessperson who has spoken out about depression talks of developing a positive routine for themselves, one that can include talk therapy, medication, exercise, a loving environment, art and other hobbies, and positive challenges. What companies can do for employees is create awareness, empathy and understanding, including highlighting the positive traits a mental illness can foster. They need to create an atmosphere in which anyone can feel comfortable revealing they have a condition without fear of repercussions.

Here are four things businesses should do:

1. Talk about it

Talk about depression and mental states so they become the new normal. Bring speakers, hold workshops and regularly talk about successful people who have suffered depression, so that everyone in the company considers it a normal part of the human condition.

2. Take action

Teams should be taught to recognise the signs of mental illness, both in themselves and others. They should also be supported in planning their personal and working lives in ways that decrease the chances of a depressive episode. If fostering resilience becomes a daily practice, the probability of a crisis is lower. And if one does arise, there should be peer-to-peer and external processes in place to deal with it.

3. Rest and relax

To mitigate episodes and try to make them less frequent takes some space. An individual may need to take a day or two, or more, off from time to time and/or work from the home – potentially without any questions asked at first. All absence is unsettling for a business, so for every role you should know who takes over and how. By planning in detail for all leave, you will not marginalise those who get depression by singling them out.

4. Take ownership

The team itself should take ownership of the issue. Every staff member is a potential counsellor and empathy should be expected. If it is appreciated concretely in performance reviews it will become the default.

Yes, depression is a social issue and it is unethical to ignore it. But ignoring it is also plain bad business.

Get advice from Katarina, and hear other speakers including Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark and Isuzu Truck UK honorary chairwoman Nikki King OBE at the Inspiring Women Edinburgh conference at the Balmoral Hotel on March 5th 2015 - book now and get 25% off.

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