High Flyers, Hard Landings

14 April 2008

Successful business people are susceptible to depression, but they are unlikely to acknowledge it when they have a problem. Mark Stuart encourages sufferers to face up to their condition and take remedial action.

Successful A- and B-type personalities are more prone to depression than any other type of worker, as they strive to achieve more and be successful. But depression is the taboo illness of executives, because it is perceived to be a sign of weakness, when in fact it is merely an indicator of a successful and powerful individual under strain.

The leader of any team needs to be motivated, energetic and focused. But when your sense of purpose is eroded or your positive state of mind undermined, the world can suddenly seem a challenging place. This mindset can be an even greater burden when you are the boss, because often there doesn’t seem to be anyone you can ask for help, and trying to solve the problem yourself makes you feel even more isolated.

Meanwhile, your anxiety is increased by the fact that your team is becoming demotivated and less productive, as they sense there is something wrong with the leader.

Overcoming depression can be a daunting task. But there are several simple things you can do to help lift a depression if and when it strikes.


Your first response to depression is likely to be denial – ‘There’s nothing wrong with me,’ or ‘I just need to pull myself together’. One of the reasons you became a boss in the first place was because you are driven, and part of that drive comes from a fear of failing or of being perceived to be weak. To remedy the situation, you need to overcome your natural desire to bury the problem. Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist or put off dealing with it, because there are more important issues to resolve first. Decide you are going to do something about it.

"Anti-depressants won't solve the problem immediately, but will help you beat it yourself. "

Think of what made you successful in the first place. It is likely to be a combination of determination and the habit of seeking advice when you need it. Try to see depression as a similar challenge. Don’t be afraid to talk to your partner or close friends – they’ll have noticed something is wrong, and they will be glad you have taken them into your confidence. It can be helpful if you have a colleague you trust enough to speak to in confidence.

If you tend to suppress your feelings, talking about them will help. You are likely to find that things aren’t as bad as you thought they were, and doubts that you had about your own achievements are likely to ease.

Trust your colleagues more: be prepared to delegate certain tasks. By ceding control, you might relieve some of the anxiety that is causing your depression.

Go to your doctor, and talk the problem through with them. Anti-depressants sometimes get a bad press, especially among the successful, but they can alleviate the worst of the depression and help you regain your motivation and sense of purpose. You don’t have to tell anyone that you have spoken to your doctor, and anything you say is in confidence, so why not speak to them? Use medication as a tool for achieving success. Try not to see it as sign that you are finding it harder to cope than you used to.

Anti-depressants won’t solve the problem immediately, but will help you beat it yourself. You could complement the antidepressants with a natural remedy for depression such as St John’s Wort, which is widely believed to alleviate the symptoms of depression, but check with your doctor first.


A change of mindset as well as modifying your lifestyle may be the best way to tackle the underlying cause of your depression. Try to find out what is causing your low mood. Perhaps the problem is lack of self-worth. You feel that you used to achieve a lot, but are not as successful as you were. If this is the case, this feeling is more likely to be based on perception rather than reality.

"A lifestyle change, large or small, may help you beat your depression."

Make a list of your achievements over the last year. Think about positive things, rather than the negative things you have been focusing on recently. You may find that you have actually achieved more than you think.

A lifestyle change, large or small, may help you beat your depression. Choose an activity you enjoy and spend more time doing it. Spend more time in the garden, or do something specific with your partner or children at weekends, preferably something physical. Increasing your level of physical activity can help you break out of your negative mindset.

If your depression is caused by lack of interest or motivation in the workplace or the perception that your career is not progressing as fast as it should be, you might need to consider leaving your current job. Explore other options. Is there a hobby that you used to enjoy, but have let slip because of the pressures of work? Start doing it again. Could you take a six-month sabbatical to go travelling?

Again, your immediate response to these kinds of suggestions is likely to be to worry that you haven’t got the time or that the business will collapse without you. These are symptoms of depression, and they can keep you in their grip if you let them. You can make the time to do what you want, and the business won’t collapse without you. It is more likely to suffer if you carry on as you are. It is better for a company if it does without its boss for a month if it then gets an energetic, motivated and effective boss back. A tired, stressed executive who feels they can’t take their holidays is not going to benefit anyone.

You used to have a can-do attitude. You need to use that same attitude against your feelings of demotivation or disinterest. Feeling that the situation is hopeless or that there is nothing you can do about it merely fuels the depression, and it is not even an accurate assessment of the situation.

Consider seeing a life coach – they may be able to put some focus, vision and sense of purpose back into your life and give you a new perspective on your work-life balance.


Changing your diet, increasing your exercise level and drinking less alcohol are simple but effective ways of breaking depression’s grip. Two or three portions of oily fish, such as mackerel or salmon, a week are good for the brain, and getting your five portions of fruit or vegetables a day is obviously a good idea. Of course, when you are depressed you often don’t notice that you’re not eating properly.

"Don't deny yourself the things you like, but consume smaller quantities of higher-quality treats."

But eating two bananas a day, for example, doesn’t take up any time, and banana is a good energy-rich food that will kick-start your body’s natural defences against feeling low.

Be positive about these simple lifestyle changes, and stick to them. They might seem like trivial ways to stop what seems like a huge problem, but try to see these tasks as being similar to the work of a musician performing their scales. It may be a mundane job, but you won’t perform well if you don’t do it.

If you find yourself drinking more or overeating to cope with your depression, ask yourself whether the over-indulging could be contributing to your depression.

It could be making you physically sluggish, and reducing your alertness and concentration levels. If you are putting on weight, that could also be contributing to your low state of mind. Don’t deny yourself the things you like, but consume smaller quantities of higher-quality treats. Choose a fine dark chocolate or an expensive mature cheese, and focus on what you’re eating – don’t eat while doing something else.


One of the paradoxes of depression is that when you’re depressed, as well as busy, following advice such as ‘exercise more’ seems too much of a chore. However, it needn’t be like that. Going for a half-hour walk three times a week can trigger the release of chemicals in the brain that can start to combat depression. You might not want to do it or feel you have the energy to do it, but you must make yourself do it anyway.

You’ll soon see the positive results that a small increase in your exercise level can achieve. When you are walking, look in the direction of the sun (slightly away from the sun if it is a bright day). The light from the sun stimulates the production of serotonin in our brain, the body’s natural defence against depression.


Depression is like any other illness. The problem is that it’s often not regarded as an illness, and the temptation is to ignore it. By responding proactively, however, you can prevent your depression escalating and find a way back to being motivated and effective in your career, while enjoying life away from the office. As with any such event, the fact that depression has targeted you is not important; the important thing is how you deal with it.