Managers’ Mental Health Matters

More Research is Needed to Address Stress and Burnout

Trigger Warning: This week’s post discusses suicide among managers and leaders.

Jeffrey Parker, former CEO and general manager of MARTA
Jeffrey Parker, former MARTA CEO/general manager (Image: MARTA)

Over the past several weeks, I have been made aware of three leaders’ suicides, including two BIPOCs. As our world is both big and small, I have personal touchpoints to each of these heartbreaking deaths. Some of my close colleagues and friends worked with these people. Last month, Jeffery A. Parker, former CEO and general manager of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), committed suicide at work when he walked in front of a moving train. Ten days later, the mayor of Hyattsville, Maryland, Kevin Ward (no relation), allegedly killed himself by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Earlier this week, America was rocked by news of the death of former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst, who leapt to her death from her high-rise condominium building shortly after posting a stunningly glamourous image of herself on Instagram.

Three weeks ago, I interacted with Cheslie Kryst on TikTok about the value and challenges of learning the Socratic method. Her social media following was massive, and not just because she provided beauty tips and career advice. Kryst was also extremely candid about the racism and microaggressions she frequently encountered as a biracial woman. In one TikTok video, she shared stories of workplace mistreatment during her career as an attorney that were so severe she vowed to never return to practicing law again.

Kevin Ward, former mayor of Hyattsville, MD
Kevin Ward, former Mayor of Hyattsville, MD (Image: Twitter)

As Parker’s and Ward’s deaths are still under investigation, it will be some months before we learn any details about the motives of their suicides. Both men seemingly “had it all.” They were at the top of their careers, surrounded by loved ones and communities that supported their trajectories. Yet, there was a hurt in their hearts and spirits so pronounced that the only way they felt they would be rid of the pain was to end their lives.

When prominent people commit suicide, our common practice is to discuss suicide prevention. While this may be an effective measure to do some awareness building, little to no time is spent discussing the emotional toll leaders and managers shoulder every day. Leading teams or having a high profile is indeed rewarding, but it also comes with a unique set of complications that can impact leaders’ mental health.

I have led teams with degrees of success and challenges for close to 30 years. My leadership experiences have been mainly positive and are generally enjoyable. Yet, there are times when leadership is tough because empathic leaders carry their teams’ personal and professional burdens with them (even if the leader does not express it). Leaders also report experiencing varying degrees of workplace mistreatment such as name-calling from staff, being yelled at or threatened, and other forms of disrespect. BIPOC leaders’ experiences (paywalled) are not dissimilar to those of BIPOC staff (paywalled) in that they experience racism and other forms of discrimination.

Despite being confronted with challenges daily, leaders are still expected to project stable stewardship, demonstrating strength and calm at all times. The expectation is nestled within an odd phenomenon: many workers fail to acknowledge managers’ humanity because they do not view leaders as people

This moment in history is the most difficult time to serve as a leader and manager in more than a century. The stress of leading now is extraordinary due to all of the complications stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, few mental health support mechanisms are in place to help leaders learn how to rest, refresh, and renew.

The academy has spent a significant amount of time and resources conducting studies on poor leadership, toxic workplaces (paywalled), and the frustrations of individual workers (paywalled). This course of research must continue if we aim to create more inclusive workplaces.

However, more research on leadership challenges and how it impacts leaders’ mental health is equally important. Higher education must produce, encourage, and structure new forms of data and insights-to-action research to assist managers and their workplaces. We focus on whole student and employee development at some institutions. If we are genuinely committed to creating and sustaining an inclusive workplace, we must also invest in whole manager development and support.

Special note: Strains on the healthcare community during the COVID-19 pandemic may have compromised access to some mental health services. The CDC reports a rise in suicide among BIPOC, LGBTQ+ individuals, veterans, and middle-aged people, deeming them high-risk populations. Drug overdose suicides have increased among the elderly and Black women. In addition, suicide attempts are up among teenaged girls.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals in the United States. Their phone number is 1-800-273-8255. Online chat support is also available.

988 has been designated as the new three-digit dialing code that will route callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. While some areas may be currently able to connect to the Lifeline by dialing 988, this dialing code should now be available to everyone across the United States.

For TTY Users: Use your preferred relay service or dial 711 then 1-800-273-8255.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.