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Patrick Watt


Corporate Director

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Leading the way: Tackling stress from the top


It is the norm for physical health issues to be discussed openly in most organisations, but mental health remains very much a taboo topic. We’ve witnessed people from all parts of society speak up about mental health, except in the business world.

So it’s up to business leaders to ensure that it can be talked about freely so that people who are dealing with the condition will seek the support they need to ensure they return to full health. As with most other conditions, the earlier someone gets help for stress, depression and anxiety, the less impact it is likely to have on the individual and their team.

It can be difficult to focus on staff issues when the responsibility of being a leader looms large. Managing directors are the most likely people in the entire workforce to be stressed – with almost three quarters (73%) admitting that they are feeling the pressure[i]. A large proportion of chief executives (64%) and senior managers (58%) are also struggling with the condition compared to the average worker (44%).

Often, those at the top are reticent to admit to being stressed or anxious as it could affect their career opportunities and risk them appearing weak. However, they must lead by example in minimising their own stress (which can be a gateway to other more serious mental health conditions) and ensuring that employees know there will be no negative consequences of admitting they need support.

Steps to take

So what steps can leaders take to reduce their levels of stress and what longer-term changes can they put in place to help employees?

There is a common misconception that working well into the night and not having a work-life balance are the sacrifices that must be made in order to succeed as a leader. While it is clearly not possible to always finish on time, Harvard Business Review recently reported that even President Obama – with the weight of the world on his shoulders – is home for dinner with his family at 6.30pm, five days a week. Business leaders should make the effort to adopt the same attitude and acknowledge the importance of their personal life – and that of others within their workforce. 

While it may not be possible for everyone to switch off at 5.30pm every day, employers should enable their people to mitigate the effects of long hours by providing ways to de-stress and re-energise.

There are some simpler steps leaders can take to make sure that they are setting the right example – for instance taking regular breaks. Time away from your desk can help prevent work becoming overwhelming. A study by Leiden University’s Lorenza Colzato found that people who go for a walk or ride a bike four times a week are able to think more creatively. It could be as easy getting off the bus a few stops early or parking further from the office.

Leaders cannot rely solely on middle managers to deal with stress issues in the wider workforce, as more than a quarter admit they are too stressed themselves to deal with the mental health issues of their team. Supplying reading materials such as the HBR Guide to Managing Stress at Work, or the Bupa Stress Guide can assist workers in addressing their own stress levels and make them aware of the solutions and the signs – such as inability to concentrate, constant worrying, memory problems, aches and pains, frequent colds and nausea.

Regular team meetings and open forums for discussing the problems and challenges should also be organised. Such open communication can help act as a trigger that starts to chip away at the wall of silence that surrounds mental health.

There is no quick solution, but leaders must take the first steps to tackling the mental health taboo – leading by example, taking control of their own health and empowering others to do the same.

For more information on how to lead a healthy, happy workforce, please visit

[i] All data is based on the responses of over 6,000 people who took part in Bupa research on mental health released in November 2013.

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Patrick Watt

Corporate Director

Read more from Patrick Watt

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