Most people acknowledge the challenges faced by corporate CEOs. Long hours, travel, dealing with investors, customers, suppliers, employees, and more—these are widely accepted elements of a CEO’s job description. Of course, most people also assume that the perks of the job—high pay, stock options, company car (or jet!)—more than compensate. When you add it all up, the CEO should be the happiest gal or guy in the company, right?
Think again. The odds are high that the CEO in your neighborhood is suffering from depression. In fact, research suggests that the depression rate among CEOs is double the national level of 20%. Others believe the rate to be even higher, estimating that as many as 50% of CEOs have suffered from depression at some point in their lives.
Researchers are beginning to question whether high-achieving individuals are predisposed to depression; others are looking at the pressures of CEO-level responsibility as a possible trigger or, at the very least, an aggravating factor. My guess is that the answer will be a little of both. Either way, if your career plans include a corner office and the CEO title, you should probably count depression among the hurdles you may face along the way.
Actually, that’s an excellent way to think about depression: as a possible hurdle you may face along the road to success. I have seen too many colleagues, for the most part high-level executives, lose their bearings over losing their bearings, if you get my drift.
My depression hurdle began before I could even imagine a career as an executive. At the age of 20 I checked myself into a psychiatric institution and began the long road to recovery from depression. I had already flunked out of school and blown through a variety of temporary jobs. When I was 24, my abusive father threw me out of the house. I lived at the YMCA and a boarding house with other transients, supporting myself by cleaning bathrooms at the local motor inn.
If your career plans include a corner office and the CEO title, you should probably count depression among the hurdles you may face along the way.
—Dennis C. Miller
Determined to turn my life around, I focused on earning an education, beginning where I could—with an open-admission community college—and kept at it until I graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers University and then with honors from a Columbia University master’s program. I worked my way through various posts in the health care industry and at 49, was appointed president and CEO of a major medical center.
By the time I reached the C-suite, I was an old hand at dealing with my depression and anxiety. I had built a support network of mental health professionals, family, and trusted friends and believe me, I leaned on them many times when the pressures of leading an organization got to be too much for me to handle alone. I still do. And while I wouldn’t wish on anyone what I experienced in my youth, my own personal path has given me a unique perspective on achieving success, despite depression.
For starters, depression is not a character flaw. It can be the result of life trauma, loss or grief, and/or biochemistry. The stress of leading a company can exacerbate the symptoms of depression, and can bring anxiety into the mix. When I became CEO of the medical center, I needed to generate positivity in every area of operations, from surgery to building maintenance, while implementing significant programmatic and staff changes. I needed to be operating on all cylinders every day, and that meant checking in with my therapist so that the pressure didn’t overtake my desire to succeed in my new role.
But if you haven’t had a background like mine, depression really can take you by surprise, making the path from early symptoms to effective treatment even longer. Of course, there is no way to be fully prepared for depression (or for being a CEO, for that matter), but here are a few helpful tips to keep handy, just in case:
- If you think you may be suffering from depression, a depression screening can help you determine whether or not you need to take the next step in seeking treatment.
- As I said, depression is not a character flaw. It is not a reflection of your management ability, either. Some of history’s greatest leaders, including Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, suffered from depression.
- I realize that it takes courage and strength to seek professional help. On the other hand, you wouldn’t try to suffer silently with a broken leg, would you? Why should you, or anyone, suffer silently with depression?
Don’t let depression get in the way of your success, and don’t let it derail the career you’ve worked so hard to build. When you are struggling with depression and anxiety, otherwise straightforward decisions and tasks can become overwhelming; tough decisions and difficult tasks become impossible. This is bad for you, and bad for your company. Clear thinking, productive relationships, and positive energy are critical ingredients of a successful business.
The really good news is that no one needs to suffer from depression. Excellent, highly effective treatments are widely available. Take advantage of what modern medicine has to offer. While freedom from depression can’t guarantee the success of your next business venture, it will guarantee that your journey will be much more rewarding.
Dennis C. Miller is the author of Moppin’ Floors to CEO: From Hopelessness and Failure to Happiness and Success, and is a nationally recognized strategic leadership coach with over 30 years of experience. The former CEO of Somerset Medical Center and Healthcare Foundation, Miller now works with leaders of nonprofit organizations and is an expert in board governance, leadership development and succession planning.