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Why Can’t We Let Our Leaders Be Human?


Leaders are as likely to struggle with poor mental health as the people they supervise. Yet they’re expected to act more like superheroes

Superhero image

It used to be that employees struggling with mental health had nowhere to turn. The choice was to suffer in silence or leave. Increasingly, organizations realize that it serves no one’s best interest to sweep these issues under the rug and are offering employees much-needed support. But one group is frequently left out of the conversation: those at the top.  

New research draws attention to an unsettling double standard in the workplace: organizational leaders are expected to be much less likely to have mental health challenges than the people they supervise. Those biased expectations can make a difficult situation worse.   

“We have ridiculously high expectations of people as a result of their job titles,” says Anika Cloutier, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Management at Dalhousie University. “We might not think about our bosses as partners, parents, friends and all the other roles that they function in that might affect their lives.”  

Cloutier, who completed her doctoral studies at Smith School of Business, says such expectations can set up two competing narratives that leaders must juggle: not only are they supposed to role model healthy behaviour and set boundaries between their work and home, but they are also encouraged to share their mental health challenges so that subordinates might do the same.   

“We’re telling them, You should disclose the struggles that you might be dealing with to create a safe environment for other people to come to you. But how do you actually do both?” asks Cloutier. “I think it’s a difficult position to put people in.”   

Competing expectations  

Cloutier teamed up with Julian Barling, Borden Chair of Leadership at Smith School of Business, to study this phenomenon. Over the course of three studies, the pair not only looked at whether leaders are held to higher mental health standards but also the role that bias plays in setting up the expectation that leaders are mentally healthier than their subordinates.   

In the first study, they asked study participants open-ended questions about mental health generally and what mental health looks like in the workplace. They then had the same participants list the kinds of people who come to mind when thinking about mental health at work and asked followup questions prompting them to think about specific work roles. Cloutier says that when asked to imagine a worker struggling with poor mental health, most participants pictured lower-status, frontline or lower-wage-earning workers.  

“They were saying things like, When I think about mental health at work, I think about burnout, stress, anxiety,” she says. Conversely, when people described those in leadership roles, they used words such as “striving,” “succeeding” and “growing” — the more positive aspects of mental health. “We started to see this naturally occurring pattern without prompting people to think about any one kind of worker specifically.”

In the second study, the researchers described an employee with a history of depression, an employee with a history of hypertension and one who was simply moving between jobs. Participants were randomly assigned one of these character studies and indirectly asked how suitable that individual might be for a leadership role.   

“Again, what we found was that people generally believed that someone with mental illness was expected to engage in fewer leadership behaviours and was seen as having fewer prototypical leadership traits or stereotypical leadership behaviours,” says Cloutier, adding that the research team controlled for factors such as gender.  

With the third study, Cloutier and Barling probed deeper into the question of why people hold these beliefs. They found that many believe that leaders simply have better access to the resources required to support good mental health.  

“Every single job has demands,” Cloutier says, “and over time those demands can build up and cause mental health struggles, or where you can be feeling negative emotions related to work.”   

On the other hand, she explains, work can also bring us important resources, such as a sense of meaning and well-being, plus money of course. “And in general, people just think that if you are in a leadership role, you probably have more of those (positive) resources, and so you are probably better off than someone who doesn’t have those things.”  

Perpetuating an image  

While leadership roles may bring autonomy and resources, says Cloutier, it is important to consider that they also come with increased responsibility and stress. “I think people downplay those demands a little bit when they are looking at their leaders,” she says, suggesting it might be because leaders themselves frequently try to project an image of security and dependability. “They might help perpetuate that image out of fear of looking weak or not suited for a leadership role.”   

Cloutier believes that strides have been made in workplace mental health disclosure and support. But more must be done. Her three studies with Barling, she says, “demonstrate that maybe we’re not getting deep into understanding and accepting what mental health is like at work because we are seeing this bias emerge in a very covert way.”  

Maybe, she adds, “we’re okay with lower-status people having mental illness, but when it comes to the roles that we really prize and romanticize, like leadership roles, we are still not okay there. Real inclusion in the workplace means representation across the hierarchy.”