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Typically, discussions regarding tech leaders focus on what they’re doing in the workplace. And while tech leaders often make headlines for their innovative products and solutions, what is often overlooked is how their role can impact their emotional health.
In fact, one survey of 500 tech leaders found that high stress levels have resulted in one of every three tech executives taking controlled substances like sleeping pills and amphetamines because of work-related stress. And roughly half self-report as heavy drinkers.
Such troubling statistics are a key part of why Angel Mehta, an angel investor and former head of Sterling-Hoffman Executive Search, has made the emotional health of tech leaders a top priority.
Mehta’s interest in the emotional health of tech leaders comes as a result of working on his own. “I’ve done a deep dive into my own inner life over the past five years,” he says. “When you connect with your own suffering, you start to recognize it in the people around you. So many hard-driving tech leaders try to compartmentalize and push away their emotional pain. They assume things are fine, but in reality, anything you suppress bleeds into your work, your family life, and even your physical health.”
Stress is often viewed as a natural part of the tech industry, but the consequences can be far reaching when it is not addressed in a healthy manner. In one study of IT workers, 54% had depression, anxiety and insomnia, 56% experienced musculoskeletal symptoms and 22% had recently been diagnosed with hypertension. Poor worker health has long been associated with decreased profits, and the same holds true for leaders.
As Mehta explains, “A big part of an Executive-Search consultant’s job involves getting deep inside the psyche of entrepreneurs and executives. Really, my job was to listen. I’ve spent thousands of hours listening to the life stories of CEOs from across the country, and I’ve seen how letting your emotional health deteriorate can take a toll. A leader who is suffering emotionally is usually a poor leader. As a result, your team, company and investors all suffer along with you.”
As Mehta notes, tech leaders often struggle to notice their emotional health is deteriorating because they are experts at compartmentalizing. Indeed, many executives are driven to succeed by the unresolved feelings they’ve been running from or suppressing. But this doesn’t solve the problem long-term. Instead, it can worsen it as the individual fails to take needed action. And while they think they have the problem under control, it will often begin to affect their behavior and well-being in other noticeable ways.
“The first thing leaders need to look at is their physical health, as there is almost always a connection between your emotional health and your body,” Mehta says. “It doesn’t have to be something big like cancer — it can be little things like unusually sore joints, poor sleep, or needing coffee or other stimulants to make it through the day. It’s also important to look for behaviors that are clearly unproductive or self-destructive, and show up as patterns. For example, bullying, quick to anger, and talking endlessly rather than listening.”
While these warning signs can be easily observed by others, Mehta notes that many tech leaders are still able to successfully hide their emotional pain. All too often, they are unwilling to admit they have a problem until they hit “rock bottom.” Without support or intervention from others around them, this can result in extremely destructive behavior that puts their entire organization at risk.
So what can tech leaders do to address their mental health challenges? As Mehta explains, “Everybody is different. However, your first step should be to find a high-quality coach or therapist who can help you start exploring your problems. I recommend a focus on somatic therapy, which uses mind-body techniques to release damaging emotions in the body, rather than just talking endlessly about your problems. However, each person is different. Starting that initial exploration into your emotional pain is key to finding actionable solutions that work for you.”
In recognition of just how important addressing these issues are, Mehta volunteers his time (and home) with struggling CEOs and entrepreneurs who have “a genuine desire to heal.” As he explains, having complete buy-in from the person receiving assistance is essential to the process. Company initiatives on emotional health can be useful, but they will be largely ineffective without personal buy-in.
While individual buy-in of emotional health training can be a bit hit or miss, making such resources readily available is essential in any tech organization. Even if it takes an individual time before they are willing to receive help, enabling access to trustworthy resources can hasten the recovery process. Clearly communicated policies regarding mental and emotional health can raise awareness and ensure people seek help when they need it.
By increasing awareness of emotional health challenges facing tech leaders, as well as the potential solutions to such issues, Mehta hopes to lift the industry at large.
“All the success in the world won’t make a difference for you if it destroys your emotional health,” he warns. “By learning to recognize warning signs of deteriorating mental and emotional health, you can take meaningful steps before it causes significant problems in your life. As we normalize the conversations surrounding emotional health in tech, I hope we can create a more open environment that enables more people to get the help they need.”
While external stressors in tech will never entirely go away, putting the right framework in place to respond to them in a healthier manner can have a profound impact on the industry as a whole.