Leader executives can also be affected by critical events in their personal lives. The issue is how organisations can actively and consistently support all their executives and employees.

Last week I commented on the great Desert Island Discs’ interview to Jayne-Anne Gadhia. A second very important programme has been, in my view, the interview to Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, transmitted on the 30/07/17.

Ms. Sandberg has always being an active supporter of women’s participation in business activities and leadership. Her TED Talk programme on “Why we have too few women leaders” (www.ted.com, Dec. 2010), offers some ideas about what we can do as individuals and “members of the family”, to help with women’s challenges at work.

Ms. Sandberg has been quite an activist and vocal advocate on the issue of women executives in many programmes, interviews and in her hook “Lean in” (2013), which I will be commenting on in an additional post.

The common ground between Ms. Sandberg and Ms. Gadhia is that both of them lead by example: they have a very accomplished career as executives in their own field and defend/encourage the leading role of women in different industries. The second common contributing area in the interviews, is their honest and relevant approach towards the impact of trauma and mental health.

The BBC Radio 4 interview, was remarkable because of Ms. Sandberg’s honest and well presented reflections towards her own life trauma as a consequence of the unexpected lost of her husband.

Ms. Sandberg explains why the usually simple reassurance that “everything will be okay”, which is offered to ill and grieving people, may not help them. She used her personal experience to depict why it is important for these affected people to receive practical support and assistance that restore their self-confidence and pave the way to rebuilding their lives.

Both in the case of Ms. Sandberg and Ms. Gadhia, they went back to work not only because they loved their jobs, but because the crucial support they received from the companies they work for (Facebook and Virgin Money, respectively). The return to work became a “life line”, but also a reaffirmation of their role in a wider human context. Feeling valued by their employers and co-workers, feeling useful and finding a new meaning from their work within their new circumstances could help to heal and to overcome the traumas suffered.

The day to day practice in many organisations regarding the treatment of mental health and other illnesses may not coincide with the experience of these two fantastic women. Many employers prefer not knowing the changes in circumstances faced by their employees; many withdraw the company’s support to those who may be unable to sustain an indefinite high standard of performance, even without investigating the possible causes of this change; many institutions still see events of life as a burden and a weakness of undesirable people.

If negative events, changes in circumstances and illness are acknowledged as a fact of life… the real question is, Should employees be ashamed of themselves when these occur? Should the organisations marginalise or finish the employee’s career in the company as a consequence of this? Should organisations such as Facebook and Virgin Money have forced these brilliant executives to leave because of being affected so profoundly in their personal lives and, consequently, being suffering with a negative mental state or illness?

It seems apparent that the answer to the above questions should be an automatic “no”.
As we stated in the previous commentary, the benefit of the employers’ support goes towards the employee and society, but especially towards the employer itself. Notwithstanding this truth, many organisations (private and public), are not prepared yet for implementing a compassionate and proactive approach towards their employees’ mental and physical illnesses. These organisations have a big deal to lose in terms of loyalty, dedication and respect from different stakeholders. These organisations are not contributing to society the best way they should.

We applaud the treatment granted by Facebook and Virgin Money towards these two great executive women. Surely, these are two superb examples to be emulated by others everywhere.


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