Your personal board of directors is well-suited to help navigate work stresses. Here are three psychological reasons why

Kilberry | 8 August 2022

Mental health is a dial and not a switch—the more continuously aware leaders are of their wellbeing, the earlier they can nip the concerns in the bud.

The price of leadership is one of unrequited support. While leaders are expected to tend to the wellbeing of their people, such assistance is often unavailable to them.

Recent findings from a survey conducted by LifeWorks and Deloitte highlight the double standard that leaders face when it comes to their own mental health.

Over half of the 1,200 senior leaders surveyed indicated that stigma in their organization still prevents them from opening up about their mental health challenges. Yet, organizations encourage their employees to “bring their whole self to work,” which includes being vulnerable and asking for help.

Thus, although organizations may be receptive to their broader employees’ mental health, these expectations do not generalize to senior leaders.

In a different context, however, organizational leaders may already have an existing network that they can lean onto for support—their personal board of directors.

This personal board is typically assembled by leaders to help navigate their career decisions and includes a variety of individuals, including those outside their organization and people they admire professionally.

Given their composition, leaders’ personal board of directors is well-suited to help them navigate their stresses at work. Here are three psychological reasons why:

1. Third-party insight

People are all protagonists of their own stories, which make them susceptible to biases that narrow their field of vision. These biases are further amplified by negative emotions, making individuals more likely to be blinded by changes in their wellbeing during stressful bouts of work.

A natural antidote, of course, is to receive external feedback—this is why 360 evaluations are effective at facilitating behaviour change at work. A personal board of directors is one source of external feedback. If these individuals begin to notice differences in behaviour such as a shorter fuse or heightened agitation, this may be a bellwether of change in wellbeing. Importantly, because this personal board consists of individuals that leaders trust, they will be more receptive to their observations.

2. Sounding board

Despite the headway made on mental health conversations, there still exists a stigma around seeing a mental health professional. However, the simple act of opening up about one’s stresses can improve wellbeing. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the barbershop effect, in reference to barbershops as a safe haven for difficult conversations, and recent research has highlighted the awareness that barbers have on providing “more than a haircut”.

Since leaders’ personal board also includes individuals outside of their organization, they may feel more comfortable sharing their struggles at work. Such a board doesn’t replace the role that trained mental health professionals have on improving mental health outcomes, but they do provide a listening ear and enable leaders to exercise personal agency over their circumstances, which is foundational to psychological well-being.

3. Source of accountability

Managing work stresses is an ongoing process that requires hard work, and striving toward it requires effective goal setting, which includes the optimal goal challenge and clarity. Yet, despite having the right targets and best of intentions, goal progress stagnates when individuals aren’t held accountable to them.

One solution is for leaders to share their goals with their personal board of directors. Recent research has demonstrated that individuals are more committed to their goals when they share them with those they respect because they care deeply about what those individuals think of them. Although these goals can also be shared with a spouse, wearing both spouse and accountability coach ‘hats’ can make it particularly challenging for family members to keep leaders honest along their progress to manage work stresses—despite them being among the people who are the most invested.

The bottom line

Mental health is a dial and not a switch—the more continuously aware leaders are of their wellbeing, the earlier they can nip the concerns in the bud. Leaders’ personal board of directors is well-suited to help navigate stresses at work by providing third-party insight, acting as a sounding board, and holding leaders accountable to their goals around their personal wellbeing.


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