The pandemic has encouraged everyone to take their mental health more seriously – including CEOs. Matthew Cooper, who stood down as CEO of EarnUp to focus on his wellbeing, and Jen Fisher, the first chief wellbeing officer at Deloitte, explain how positive change is possible.

CEOs struggle with mental health

CEOs are not exempt from mental health struggles, despite age-old stereotypes that they are the lions of the boardroom. (Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock)

Business leaders have long been expected to be lions of the boardroom – and lions don’t typically have psychological crises. But spurred on by the pandemic, these outdated views are changing.

Andrea Valentino talks to Matthew Cooper, who publicly left his role as CEO of EarnUp on mental health grounds, and Jen Fisher, Deloitte’s first chief well-being officer, on how attitudes towards c-suite mental health are shifting, the role of the pandemic in prodding them along – and how the line between actual and superficial change is easy to forget.

Shortly into his latest residential stay, Matthew Cooper realised something had to give. Worried he was a danger to himself, he rushed to ER, a move that ultimately led to in-patient care. That was certainly an important step towards getting better – but given Cooper had spent time in hospital three times already, a more drastic intervention was needed. “I felt at this point that I wanted to give myself more space to heal, rest, and stay healthy,” Cooper remembers. “I did not see a path to stay healthy and show up for my job in the ways I wanted to.”

So it was that late last year, as the pandemic raged and nerves frayed the world over, Cooper took a remarkable step. Writing online, he announced he was stepping down as CEO of EarnUp, a fintech start-up he’d founded, and one that has lately secured $25m in new funding.

Clearly, Cooper’s decision was personally momentous, especially for someone who’d spent so long paddling Silicon Valley’s fevered waters. After graduating from Princeton in 2005, Cooper worked at a number of private equity firms, before establishing EarnUp, a loan payments automation platform, in 2014. No wonder Cooper admits he felt “doubt and confusion” relinquishing EarnUp’s top job.

Cooper’s actions are certainly brave, and were justifiably praised by colleagues across tech. The question, of course, is why taking a work break for your own mental health should be considered so special. The answer, equally clear, is how unusual it is. Long pushed into adopting the Gordon Gekko attitude to work – act tough, get results – business leaders have shied away from giving their feelings space.

According to recent work by Stanford University, nearly three in four CEOs claim they’d worried about their own mental health over the past six months, even though around 60% of people with diagnosable conditions don’t discuss them at work.

Yet honesty is worthwhile, and not just for people like Cooper. On the contrary, a sympathetic mental health culture, shadowed by practical policies to support staff, can transform corporate living for everyone. Beyond the stark ethical reasons for taking a stand, moreover, promoting mental health can also yield financial benefits too.

In short, even the Gordon Gekkos of our time can probably find something to appreciate in adopting a more thoughtful approach to mental health – especially if they’re courageous enough to take a stand themselves.

“I did not see a path to stay healthy and show up for my job in the ways I wanted to.”

Plummeting mental health

Over the past few years, global business has been wracked by crises – technological, financial and medical. On that last point, coronavirus is obviously the star of the show, with companies forced to stumble into a frantic lexicon of lockdowns and pingdemics. Yet if Covid-19 has had direct medical consequences for companies the worldover, it’s also highlighted the links between work and mental health.

“The pandemic hit and this put a big, bright spotlight on mental health, especially in the workplace,” explains Jen Fisher, Deloitte’s first chief well-being officer, adding that Covid-19 undoubtedly took “a toll on everyone’s mental well-being”.

It’s easy to see what she means. With WFH rules atomising the work-life balance, and the risk of furlough squatting ominously behind every deadline, staff mental health has plummeted. The statistics speak for themselves. According to one August 2020 poll, over 40% of workers reported a decline in their mental well-being since the pandemic began, a point echoed in boardrooms and corner offices too.

But if the pandemic has been a psychological minefield for bosses and staff alike, Cooper and Fisher both agree it has also forced the issue further up the corporate agenda. As Fisher puts it, that’s one undoubted “silver lining” to the travails of past months.

More to the point, the pandemic has arguably just accelerated a process that first started years ago. When he first moved to Silicon Valley, Cooper remembers that mental health was “still on the periphery of corporate life” and generally lumped with politics and sex as watercooler taboos.

As Cooper bluntly puts it: “Illness and disability were equated with weakness.” Fortunately, these unenlightened ideas have started disappearing, even before we’d ever heard of lockdowns and travel bans. If nothing else, Cooper has witnessed the shift in his own milieu, recently noticing “more open discussions” about personal struggles and private pains. This is reflected in practical terms too.

As early as 2018, firms as varied as Dow Chemicals and Bank of America had instituted mental health programmes. By 2021, spurred on by both the pandemic and the transforming power of new technology, many more companies had joined the fray, supporting employee mental health in countless useful ways. One of the most sweeping examples came courtesy of Katherine Maher, then CEO at the Wikimedia Foundation.

In a viral Twitter thread, Maher waived sick days and PTO for illness, deprioritised all non-essential projects and even told her team they only had to work 20 hours a week. Of course, not all firms have been quite so generous – but 98% of CEOs still agree that employee mental health will remain key even once the pandemic subsides.

Cut through the stigma

Cooper’s resignation post included a number of fascinating insights – but one stands out. Describing the fears he felt about stepping down from EarnUp’s CEO role, he explained that part of him “wants to jump back into the hard and important work” his start-up does.

From a personal perspective, this is understandable. Just as Cooper was taking himself to ER, his company was going from strength to strength, in 2019 managing $10bn in loans. Beyond that, however, you get the sense that his uncertainty also speaks to a wider problem with how CEOs think of themselves. “We live in a white capitalist culture that tells us our productivity defines our self-worth,” Cooper emphasises. “Exhaustion is seen as a badge of honour.”

He surely has a point, even beyond the rough and tumble antics of Wall Street and other corporate cliches. Once again, the polling is enlightening. In one 2018 survey, 49% of executives reported struggling with their mental health, a figure that may be double the public at large.

Even more strikingly, many CEOs obviously feel obliged to stick it out. As another poll found, just 53% worry about their psychological state, compared to three quarters of regular employees. To put it another way, executives are less likely to look after themselves, even as the pressures of keeping a company afloat fall mainly on their shoulders.

This is frustrating – and not just for the trauma it inflicts on CEOs themselves. Both Cooper and Fisher agree that leaders play a fundamental role in promoting mental health across a business, something Fisher can attest from personal experience. “I’ve always received a lot of positive feedback from people within my organisation when I’ve been open and honest about my personal struggles with anxiety,” she explains.

“I think it’s very important because it breaks down stigmas and creates a psychologically safe work environment where employees feel comfortable speaking about mental health.” That’s particularly true, of course, in a hierarchical business, where bosses can exert a subtle influence on how their staff should act.

Fortunately, there is some evidence that CEOs are increasingly taking the psychological bull by the horns. As long ago as 2017, the CEO of Olark, another Silicon Valley startup, congratulated an employee for taking a mental health day. “You are an example to us all,” Ben Congleton told his colleague, “and help us cut through the stigma.”

And now that the pandemic has upended many of the more unpleasant arguments around corporate life, other CEOs have followed suit, with some embracing the same searing honesty as Matthew Cooper. Akash Nigam, for instance, is CEO of tech firm Genies.

As Nigam put it earlier this year: “When we went into lockdown, you take a lonely job and you make it even lonelier, you kind of step into severe, severe depression.” Beyond these individual confessions, meanwhile, corporate titans from Google to Virgin have all made the positive noises about guiding staff through bad patches.

See what happens

There are clearly moral imperatives involved here. No company is too important, no project too great, for CEOs to ignore the wellbeing of their staff – let alone their own. At the same time, however, businesses still have to make money somehow, regardless of how their employees are feeling.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of evidence that these obligations aren’t mutually exclusive. As a study by the University of Oxford discovered, happier workers are 13% more productive than their dispirited counterparts. That this research was done in concert with multinational telecoms giant BT, moreover, suggests that companies understand the link between contentedness and content.

Indeed, it’s a connection that’ll doubtless become more apparent as miserable workers continue to escape stressful positions. In April 2021, to take but one example, four million Americans left their jobs.

All the same, warns Cooper, it’s important that employees keep their CEOs to their word. After all, it’s easy to release fluffy statements about mental health – but far harder, and more expensive, to actually institute the right policies. “If mental health is valued by an organisation then the resources of the organisation should align with this value,” Cooper argues. “There are lots of ways to promote better health for employees, some of which cost money and some of which require time and focus.” Fisher makes
a similar point.

For her, programmes, policies and benefits go “hand-in-hand” with a firm’s corporate culture, adding that you “need both to empower workers to take care of their mental well-being.” It goes without saying, too, that some executives can be toe-curlingly cynical about what ‘well-being’ really means. A prime example is JPMorgan, which boasts a ‘Centre for Workplace Mental Health’ – even as Mary Erdoes, the bank’s CEO, recently told junior staff she expected them to work 80-hour weeks.

Despite these challenges, Fisher is basically optimistic about where things are moving. “We still have a long way to go, but I do see a change in how society and organisations are talking about and addressing mental health,” she says. Cooper concurs. He believes in a future where mental health is discussed compassionately, adding that the openness of sportspeople like Simone Biles meld into a wider cultural conversation.

For his part, Cooper is doing better personally, saying he’s “finding joy in a quieter pace of life”. Even so, for as long as corporate culture prays at the altar of the bottom line, mental health advocates like him will need to stay vigilant. As Cooper says of his own future: “We will see what happens.”

This article originally appeared in CEO winter 2021.