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Leaders With Mental Illness: What Family Offices Need to Know

Arden O’Connor
Founder and CEO
O’Connor Group of Professionals

July 08 – 12. 2019

Leading a business is never easy. Years of sacrifice and stress can eventually take a toll on a business leader’s health. While physical illnesses are easily identified and swiftly treated, mental illnesses present a more nuanced and complicated challenge that not many families are fully prepared to deal with.

In 2013, Reddit cofounder Aaron Swartz and well-known tech entrepreneur Jody Sherman, founder of the online marketplace Ecomom, both took their lives within a few months of each other. The unfortunate incidents highlight the struggles many founders and senior managers face during their career.

Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are far more common for company CEOs and family business leaders, according to research by Bupa Global. Its research indicates that nearly two-thirds of senior business leaders (64%) have suffered from mental health conditions during their careers. More than half (58%) say it is difficult to talk about their mental health due to their position and a quarter (24%) feel less supported for mental health issues as they get older.

“When a person is in charge of a business or asset, people around them come to rely on their judgment,” says Arden O’Connor, founder of the O’Connor Professional Group, which helps families and individuals struggling with an array of behavioral health issues. “The power dynamic makes it difficult for employees and the family to approach the topic of mental health with senior leaders.”

O’Connor’s team has worked with families who have approached them when an older founder or senior leader has unexpectedly changed their will or made a hasty decision that is atypical. She says family members are often concerned about dementia or a combination of psychiatric issues in these cases. Diagnosing the problem is often the biggest hurdle.

“These problems don’t occur overnight. It’s not like dementia sets in one day and the person starts forgetting everything the next day,” says O’Connor. “It’s a gradual process, so figuring out if there is a problem and what the problem is could be the biggest challenge for most families.”

Once the diagnosis is complete, talking about the issue and planning for the future may be the next major struggle. Family members are often afraid of coming across as insubordinate or stepping out of line if they have to tell their parents to take a step back or reconsider decisions that may not have been made with the best judgment. This feeling of fear and trepidation may be more acute for non-family employees.

Sometimes, founders and business leaders take the initiative and come forward to seek help independently. Jason Saltzman, CEO and founder of Alley–a post-business incubator, previously wrote in Fast Company, that sharing his struggles with anxiety and depression with employees was deeply liberating and helped him succeed as a leader.

“If we can be vulnerable and show that there’s nothing unstable about enduring mental health, then we give license to those we lead to do and feel the same,” he wrote. “That makes you a strong business leader.”

However, O’Connor says it’s more common for family members and employees to notice changes in patterns of behavior and make a diagnosis of mental illness before the leader recognizes it. In such cases, she recommends having an open conversation, but choosing phrases carefully. “Talking about it from a health and wellness perspective, rather than a question of authority or mental capacity, is the best way to avoid any feelings of resentment or shame in these conversations,” she says.

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