Senior Executives Suffering Mental Health Crisis in Isolation

Senior Executives Suffering Mental Health Crisis in Isolation

June 17, 2020

Executives Global Network Managing Director Singapore Nick Jonsson says business leaders are suffering increased levels of depression, anxiety and isolation during the coronavirus crisis and shares methods executives can use to safeguard mental health and well-being.

By Nick Jonsson

According to the UN, the global economy loses more than US$1 trillion annually due to common mental health issues. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, many senior level executives were severely affected by depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation and loneliness, and in some cases, even suicidal thoughts. Now, with the pressures of physical distancing, working from home, economic uncertainty, business downturns and layoffs, these issues have only been heightened.

Corporate leaders navigating today’s conditions are burdened with greater stress than ever before. Many Singapore-based regional directors of large companies say they are working the longest hours of their lives, endlessly discussing how to rethink, restructure, reopen and survive the coronavirus crisis. Staying in touch with colleagues across timezones in Europe, Australia, the US and UK, they are literally working around the clock.

As we all recognise, under crisis conditions, the nature of work has changed. While offices are off limits and face-to-face meetings impossible, all tasks are executed on screen, via email, WhatsApp, Slack and Zoom calls. The last of these methods can be particularly draining. We’ve seen the emergence of the new phenomenon of ‘Zoom fatigue’, resulting from the intense focus necessary to carry on digital video conversations, which require us to process a huge amount of visual and verbal stimuli while simultaneously placing performance pressure on participants.

During this period where we are confined to our homes, work and personal life have blended into one (particularly for those currently home-schooling their children). There is no clear beginning or end to the working day. Senior business leaders are expected to make critical decisions swiftly, at all hours. Many of these decisions can be ‘make or break’ for the business — not to mention, the executive’s own career prospects or ongoing employment. Sometimes, they can involve layoffs of huge numbers of workers.

According to Singapore-based Clinical Mental Health Counsellor Maria Micha, the anxiety and pressures of senior leaders and C-suite executives differ tremendously from the concerns of middle management.

“Senior Leaders’ decisions will impact a much bigger group of people. They may have to slash costs and terminate a large group of employees simply in order to save the company. In making these brutally difficult decisions, executives have to face and carry the pain and desolation of a large number of individuals,” says Micha.

The myth of the heartless boss is largely just that — a myth. Leaders who have to make mass layoffs due to the crisis will definitely be affected, because they are humans. They often care deeply for their team members, as leaders retrenching staff are frequently overcome with feelings of guilt and a sense of loss and mourning. The guilt can be manifested at a subconscious level, which makes it even more challenging to identify and process. If they don’t learn how to process those difficult, painful and sad feelings, that could cloud their judgement.

The World Health Organization estimates that globally, some 264 million people are affected by depression. These numbers will almost certainly grow as a result of the fears and uncertainty brought about by the COVID-19 crisis. Senior leaders suffering depression and anxiety — not least, those running regional satellite offices of MNCs — often feel they’ve no one to discuss their own problems with. They are expected to be almost superhuman, to have all the answers and to be the ‘rock’ their employees can always depend upon for guidance. But who can the leader turn to?

During times of crisis, it is imperative to speak to a clinical mental health counsellor if you are having serious issues with insomnia, anxiety, depression, dark thoughts, obsessiveness, if you’re fighting with loved ones, or if you find yourself working around the clock — especially in the event these are unusual behaviours. The aforementioned behaviours are symptoms of mental health disturbance.

Discard the erroneous perception that if you seek help from a counsellor, there’s something wrong with you. In fact, if you seek help from a counsellor during this time, that means your emotional intelligence is high and as a result, you are likely to make better decisions. Research shows that the best decisions are a combination of emotional and intellectual intelligence.

Meanwhile, executives who attempt to ignore mental health issues may see their critical thinking skills greatly diminished. This will negatively impact not only their own wellbeing, but also that of their employees and the viability of their company.

“When leaders can’t think straight because they’re experiencing high levels of depression, anxiety and suicidality, that affects their perception and ability to make good decisions, As a result, they’re not going to be the best leaders they can be,” says Micha.

Stressed-out executives need to be honest in their self-appraisal. It’s no good maintaining a poker face and saying everything’s fine — when clearly, that is not the case right now. Aside from being unashamed to pursue professional help when it’s needed, leaders should be frank in discussing their problems with family and close friends. Beyond that close circle, they would do well to engage with a trusted mentor or coach, or participate in conversations with a business-related peer group — other members of which will doubtless be dealing with a similar set of problems.

Business leaders should, of course, adopt the commonsense daily routine of getting enough sleep, eating healthily, moderating alcohol consumption, taking regular breaks in the great outdoors and getting sufficient exercise. But if that’s not enough to ensure mental/emotional wellbeing, if you’re still suffering from anxiety, depression, guilt, insomnia or dark thoughts, don’t hesitate: Get help. Talk to a clinical mental health professional. There’s no better — or more understandable — time than the present.

(Ed. Executives Global Network Nick Jonsson says he is passionate about providing business leaders and specialists access to a professional network where they can help each other face challenges and identify opportunities. Jonsson says he serves as the Vice Chairman of the Nordic Chamber of Commerce in Ho Chi Minh City and the Vice Chairman of the Direct Selling Committee Vietnam. If you are experiencing mental health problems, seek help through Gov.sg healthlines here.)

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