Stress Poses Severe Impact on the Mental Health and Well-being of Leaders

Dennis Relojo-Howell

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Dennis Relojo-Howell, (2019, October 7). Stress Poses Severe Impact on the Mental Health and Well-being of Leaders. Psychreg on Organisational Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/mental-health-of-leaders/
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Leadership is a difficult skill to master for many across the world, and new research has highlighted how the path to leadership is far from easy. 

Zety took a deep dive into the careers of the top world leaders and found that 3 out of the top 4 had either been fired, investigated or declared bankrupt in their careers before politics. Perhaps then, these figures are quite used to the controversies of leadership having experienced it in their careers before.

It was also found that the most popular career choices for leaders before politics other than governmental roles is the legal profession (20%), education (16%) and media jobs (16%). Of course, these fields do include stresses, but do they prepare a person for the severe mental strains of governing as a leader of a whole country?

Leaders such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel have suffered some potentially career-ending setbacks, yet they have all managed to claim the most powerful office in their respective countries. Under increased pressure, being a leader so powerful is a tough task, and Zety spoke to a leadership development and stress management expert to understand more. 

Marilyn Devonish, who has worked on managing leadership and stress control for the past 19 years explains what the main impacts of severe mental stress has on leadership skills. 

Firstly, poor decision making, she says, affects many leaders who have not developed the necessary skills to learn to deal with an overworked mind, crowded by a heavy workload: ‘Stress often leads to bad or poorly conceived leadership decisions because people can’t think straight, assimilate and process information, be creative or articulate themselves particularly well when under pressure unless they have learned the skills to allow them to do so.’

Unfortunately, in the urgency of trying to clear this workload, some may become outwardly stressed, impacting on their relationship with colleagues, family and friends which can be destructive.

Stressed leaders just want things done and done now, because if they are stressed or don’t know the answers, they don’t have the time to sit down and discuss things rationally with their teams. 

‘The stress can bring out the worst in people when it comes to emotional intelligence, which they either take out on themselves, their team, or on family and friends outside of the work environment.  Whichever it is, the negative knock-on effect can be destructive.’

Indeed, a leader may constantly be thinking about their job, and will follow a person around in their personal lives, completing a worrying cycle of stress and mental strain.

‘There’s no off switch.  Severe mental stress doesn’t just stop once the clock hits ‘x’pm and you walk out the door. It can continue into the evening, and be the first thought that wakes them up in the morning, and consume the weekend – particularly Sunday afternoon and evening where the feeling of dread creeps in.’ 

Political leaders

Due to the nature of the job, political leaders must of course deal with the above problems relating to leadership, but Devonish also noted several specific issues facing those in charge of governing their country. 

Listening and wrestling with the opinions of others in a passionate, ambitious team of future leaders in a political cabinet meeting can clearly be a difficult challenge, so having a solid internal sense of self is crucial: ‘Political leaders have to listen to a lot of voices and opinions so if they don’t have a strong sense of self and an understanding of the issues being debated, that might lead to scattered or knee-jerk reaction decisions, and internal conflicts.’

A team of loyal and trustworthy colleagues is important in all walks of life, and none more so than in political situations. Without that support, there will be major conflicts to be resolved: ‘If your team are not 100% with you, that can cause major internal and external stress. There’s more than enough for political leaders to handle without having to watch their back and guard against their own team.’

And finally, in this current climate of polarisation in politics and the prominence of social media platforms, it is very difficult to function if a leader does not grow thick skin. The lack of this could lead to two different extremes: giving up on principles because of criticism, or badly handling criticism and lashing out against it.

This can either to lead to wishy-washy leadership driven by fear, uncertainty or trying to appease everyone, or the negative backlash where they hit out at critics to score points rather than truly lead.’


Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He is also the editor-in-chief of Psychreg Journal Psychology, and writes a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today

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