Executive loneliness and isolation at the top—what to do about it.
Looking back at the pre-COVID-19 world, senior executives could rarely look forward to spending their free time at home. The countless overseas meetings and stresses of the job that led to the perennial separation from loved ones have somehow deterred through teleconferencing, especially now with the Coronavirus outbreak. However, what about the future?
I have worked in various managerial positions in South East Asia since 2004 before I acquired the franchise rights for Executives’ Global Network in Singapore. At EGN, we offer confidential peer groups for senior executives and provide them with the opportunity to discuss business-related issues, seek feedback and just talk about any pressing issues with like-minded individuals.
With more than 250 members in Singapore alone, these group meetings also provide some very much needed support for its members. They also provide the executives with a chance to network with other senior executives as they understand that the old adage “It’s lonely at the top” truly does have some truth to it.
What do corporate leaders face today?
Harvard Business Review commissioned a study and revealed that 50% of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) have reported feeling a sense of loneliness and it eventually held them back from delivering their best at work. In Singapore, the problem is particularly acute as there are varying work cultures and long working hours. Not to mention if you are a regional director based in Singapore, you will need to report directly to the CEO or board of directors who are based in another continent, further exacerbating the feeling of isolation.
This was, of course, before the world was hit with COVID-19. Now, most companies are in crisis mode with many of their employees suffering and executives having to carry the burden alone. Executives are currently coping with unprecedented amounts of stress—cost-cutting, mass layoffs and many more. They need to make these critical business decisions at pace, on a day-to-day basis while having to work extra hours. It is to no one’s surprise that many executives are experiencing fatigue.
It is important to know that EGN’s peer networks do not solve these problems but they do provide an opportunity for executives to discuss these issues with their peers and help each other out. From there, they can assist each other in managing the issues better both personally and business-wise.
Not to forget, these executives are making such major decisions whilst being surrounded by their family members. They have to face the dilemma of trying to support their children, such as through home-schooling, as well as potentially making life-and-death decisions at work. In the end, they neglected their mental health and well-being either to stigma or by treating it as a nice-to-have.
Nevertheless, it is crystal clear that the mental well-being of senior executives is not just a bonus—it is in our current climate, it is a commercial imperative.
Has the ongoing digital transformation changed how business is done?
Generally speaking, the ongoing digital transformation has changed how business is done now. However, a lot of the new technologies were not accepted or even used until COVID-19 hit the world earlier this year. There are always two sides of the coin with all new technologies and here are the pros and cons surrounding it.
Pros: Novel technology such as Zoom includes less travel, especially for internal meetings. Of course, this is not an option now considering that most of the borders are still closed but we can expect that the C-Suite will choose to meet virtually even after the pandemic is over.
Cons: Privacy is definitely the con of doing business online. Back in February earlier this year, when everyone was turning to Zoom to conduct virtual meetings, some security and privacy flaws were detected. Fortunately, the problems were quickly dealt with and Zoom is now accepted as part of the new normal again.
How has COVID-19 worsened executive isolation?
I have spoken to executives who claimed that when they work from home, they struggled to separate work from personal matters and family lives. Everything is jumbled up together, leaving little to no family time and even lesser time for exercise and leisure.
As I have mentioned before, the situation we are in has led to very long working hours—meaning if you have conference calls with Europe, US and so on, the different time zones make it extremely challenging for you to arrange your time without having to work around the clock, or at least irregularly.
How else do you think executive isolation during COVID-19 affects corporate leaders? Is there a silver lining?
Although working from home could be bringing executives closer to their families, it could also pull them further apart, especially if they work in an expat hub such as Singapore. Among the 2 million expats in Singapore, about half of the senior executives at the highest levels are expatriates. This could mean that if they are currently isolated with their immediate family, they are still far away from their parents, grandparents and other relatives and friends in their home countries. This is, indeed, a huge issue.
Very few leaders that I have spoken with reported being able to spend more time with their families during this time. Although they are physically near, they are coupled with extreme pressure and their mind is on other things.
Moving beyond COVID-19, it seems that telecommuting and working-from-home might become the future. What’s your take on it?
I have already mentioned some of the pros such as less travelling for internal meetings but we humans are social animals, really. Working from home does not replicate a real connection we get from human interactions, which is why it is easier to keep secrets when you are speaking virtually as compared to speaking in-person.
In terms of networking, we usually have it in hotel ballrooms or other event spaces to socialise. Now with virtual networking, it has become more time-efficient and straight to the point. What usually took us hours in a physical event can now be done in 90 minutes online.
Back then, we met six times a year in person which is why executives might now prefer virtual meetings more. I expect to see more hybrid networking models such as this moving forward.
Do you have any advice for business leaders moving forward regarding loneliness?
The most important thing is to stay connected. It is not just limited to executives only, everyone needs a group of close personal contacts who they can pour their heart out to about issues bothering them.
It is equally important for business leaders in today’s world to belong to a professional network of like-minded peers in order for them to reach out and discuss confidential matters such as career or business challenges. Leaders should not need to carry the heavy burden of leadership in isolation as it can be harmful to themselves and others.