High Anxiety

Business leaders should address the increasing prevalence of underlying anxiety in the workplace, starting in the C-suite, to improve a company’s overall health.
Lori Edelson
Lori Edelson // Photograph by Austin Phillips

Part of my role as the owner of a private outpatient mental health clinic in Troy is to triage prospective patients to the most appropriate therapist for their presenting
problems and concerns. As I mark my 40th year in the mental health field, I’ve become keenly aware of a noticeable shift in the primary emotional issue with which individuals are struggling.

Although they are closely linked and often experienced together, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason people seek therapy.

The increased prevalence of anxiety among high-achieving business leaders and entrepreneurs is undeniable. I believe this is related to our current culture. Theories about the rise of anxiety range from increased social, emotional, and financial pressures to the added idealization of materialism, social media’s unrealistic display of success and perfectionism, more loneliness, and generalized fear and mistrust of today’s political climate.

The myth of the idyllic life of a CEO — in which wealth, privilege, accomplishment, success, and few everyday problems are the norm — still exists. There is research, however, that shows anxiety and depression rates for CEOs are almost double that of  the general population.

“Anxiety is common among the entrepreneurially gifted,” says Sarah Wilson, author
of “First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety.” Driving down
further, there may be a correlation between underlying mental health disorders and business success.

The ability to reach goals that exceed rational expectations, to extend beyond normal fatigue, and to savor the excitement of “touching the flame” are characteristic of  the personality styles of many CEOs. Their passion, drive, and workaholic tendencies may be linked to underlying anxiety, depression, and mood disorders. While these traits play a role in an entrepreneur’s ability to succeed, they can become demons that haunt them.

The trickle-down effect of the emotional state of a corporate leader, as well as all employees, impacts the entire atmosphere of a company. When a CEO’s anxiety fuels excitement, the environment feels abuzz with positive energy. When their anxiety creates a pressure-cooker atmosphere, the energy can become negative and counterproductive.   

The World Health Organization suggests that some 300 million people suffer from anxiety globally. Not surprisingly, there are higher rates of anxiety disorders in wealthier countries, with the United States leading the way.

The myth of the idyllic life of a CEO — in which wealth, privilege, accomplishment, success, and few everyday problems are the norm — still exists.

In a May 2018 Forbes article, “Why CEOs Need to Talk About Mental Health,” Emma McIlroy, CEO and cofounder of  Wildfang, discussed her own mental health struggles as a business owner. Though it’s often said in jest, McIlroy shared how lonely it really is at the top. When the inevitable lows occurred, she felt completely alone. McIlroy believes it’s necessary to talk openly about the extreme toll that creating and running a company can have on CEOs.

“I don’t think I know a single founder who hasn’t had some kind of brush with depression, had suicidal thoughts, or experienced some level of intense mental stress,” she says.

At the same time, seeking treatment such as psychotherapy, one remedy for anxiety, is commonly misunderstood and may hinder individuals from seeking help. Others believe an admission of anxiety may make them seem weak or flawed.

But the opposite is true. Patients who seek psychotherapy work to gain understanding and make positive changes in their lives, which enables them to become empowered and liberated.

Moving forward, it’s time to create change and address the prevalence of anxiety and other mental health disorders impacting organizations. Options include allowing excused time off during business hours to attend psychotherapy sessions, offering mental health days, bringing in mental health experts to conduct psycho-educational discussions about anxiety and depression, and helping employees debrief following a traumatic event.

Preserving a healthy degree of anxiety that ignites creativity and drive is important, but it’s essential to develop greater sensitivity to that invisible line that can be crossed when anxiety becomes toxic and potentially fatal.

Anxiety continues to be a leading cause of devastating choices made by overworked and overwhelmed individuals. Understanding that someone may be crossing the delicate line into a mental health danger zone could help set them on a new course to mental wellness.

Lori Edelson is CEO and owner of Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy, a nationally accredited, private outpatient mental health clinic that serves individuals, couples, and families.