Business leaders driven to ‘self-medicate’ poor mental health – but how can they break the cycle?

Many are turning to 'self-medication' to cope with the mental health impact of the pandemic rather than seeking help, but this could have longer-lasting implications if action isn't taken.

Many are turning to ‘self-medication’ to cope with the mental health impact of the pandemic rather than seeking help, but this could have longer-lasting implications if action isn’t taken.

Once simply labelled ‘executive stress’, the mental hardship faced by business leaders is becoming increasingly well recognised – and it’s no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the issue into even sharper focus this year.

Research from Bupa Global’s recent Executive Wellbeing Index1, reveals that eight in 10 UK business leaders have experienced symptoms of mental ill-health such as fatigue, lack of motivation and disturbed sleep since the pandemic began. And for those carrying leadership responsibilities at work as well as home stresses, triggers have included concerns about business prosperity, economic recession as well as protecting the health of loved ones.

But despite widespread awareness of the mental health impact of the pandemic, many in this cohort are reticent to seek the help they need, meaning that only one in four affected have spoken to a health professional. 

Coping mechanisms

Indeed, Bupa Global’s research found that six in 10 business leaders with mental health symptoms are self-medicating with alcohol, recreational or over the counter drugs, gambling, smoking or over or under eating.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists confirms that the number of people in the UK at risk of alcohol addiction has reached 8.5 million during the pandemic2 – confirming that harmful substances are increasingly being used as a way of dealing with stress.

With complex networks of colleagues, investors, affiliates as well as their own families to consider, it’s no surprise that many executives have felt that they must ‘keep calm and carry on’, rather than facing mental health issues head on. But it perhaps goes without saying that this isn’t a healthy way to approach stress and poor mental health. 

While initially relaxing us, by releasing chemicals in the brain that block feelings of anxiety, in the longer run substances like alcohol impact on our mental health and wellbeing. The use of many of these substances can lead to problems in their own right, such as dependency – either physical or psychological – indeed, they can actually worsen a person’s mental health.

And there’s another cause for concern. The acute intoxication with substances can also increase impulsivity and so increase risks of behavioural disturbance, self-harm, or suicide; factors or risk that may already have been heightened due to any psychiatric difficulties. 

Breaking the cycle

It’s crucial to break this cycle, change our habits and learn to de-stress with different coping mechanisms. The first step is identifying triggers. Writing a list of concerns can not only help people distinguish between internal (such as health fears) and external (such as heightened workloads) pressures but also help recognise and avoid certain situations or people.

Exercise is another route to better health. According to our Executive Wellbeing Index, 32 percent of executives increased the amount of exercise they took to help alleviate mental health concerns during the pandemic, finding that it’s an effective route to better physical and psychological health.

Setting boundaries can help also create space. Spreading yourself too thinly or allowing work issues to consistently creep into your home life can often lead you to a breaking point.  For example, word ‘no’ can be incredibly effective when used correctly.

Breaking stigmas, seeking help

Alongside these ‘everyday’ steps to alleviate stress, executives should  seek professional help when it’s needed. There are plenty of support services available for people who are struggling with mental health issues, and it’s crucial to get help as early as possible. Right now this isn’t happening as it should. According to our research, two in five board level executives believe that it would damage their reputation if it became known if they were struggling, and a similar number are concerned about the impact on their professional or social reputation if they ask for help. It’s crucial that these attitudes change if we’re to address mental health issues for the long-term.

Of course, leading by example is also critical to breaking the down stigma attached to mental illness. Encouraging compassionate dialogue which leads to positive action is crucial to creating psychologically safe workplace cultures where everyone can flourish. 

Leaders who nurture talent, train line managers, put mental health and wellbeing on the Board agenda are building resilient businesses which in turn will be able to face these challenging times.


1 Bupa Global Executive Wellbeing Index (September 2020). Research conducted among 450 high net worth individuals and senior executives across UK, France, USA, UAE and Egypt 
2 Royal College of Psychiatrists, September 2020

Dr Luke James
Dr Luke James

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