With the rise of mental health issues and with the COVID pandemic forcing less and less interactions amongst co-workers and leaders, senior leaders in many organisations are suffering numerous new ailments and challenges. With the business scenario continuing to be challenging, many leaders are reaching breaking points in their personal lives. With no one to reach out to, many of these leaders may be suffering from "executive loneliness."
Recently, I read a book written by an executive based in Singapore, Nick Jonsson, titled “Executive Loneliness: The 5 Pathways to Overcoming Isolation, Stress, Anxiety & Depression in the Modern Business World” I ended up reading most of the book in one sitting as Jonsson shared his own personal story of hitting rock bottom in his struggle with “executive loneliness”. Jonsson shared that a key role of being an executive was to lead organisations to success. Doing this, takes a tremendous toll on a person, including heightening stress levels and causing significant loneliness and burnout.
Jonsson, who is Managing Director of EGN Singapore, and originally from Sweden, states that:
“The loneliness and dilemmas that executives face at the top of their organisations' experience are not discussed enough.”
Jonsson terms the challenges when an executive is experiencing extreme and prolonged stress, anxiety, isolation, and depression—as “executive loneliness.” In his book, he outlines that most executives and leader often do nothing to address this “executive loneliness” for fear of appearing unsuccessful and frowned upon. Worst, he shares that not addressing it exacerbates the negative and difficult feelings, to the point where it becomes more and more difficult for them to function. Ultimately, it takes a toll on their whole life.
From my own personal experience, I know that being a leader is quite lonely. Although you get to lead and manage numerous people, there are times when you can feel extremely lonely and have no one to turn to. And when there are no support systems in place, many leaders, especially men (who tend to have little to no outlets for emotional release), start using coping mechanics that may not necessarily help.
In fact, many times, these coping mechanisms tend to aggravate and make the situation worst. Some may use alcohol as a way to destress, or zone out in front of the TV or even resort to relaxation drugs to relief the stress. This leads to addiction and the situation starts to spiral out of control. And this is masked in the workplace, as most of these leaders continue to put on a show that all is well with their life.
In his book, Jonsson shares how he was trapped in serious “executive loneliness” for several years and resorted to alcohol as a coping mechanism. Initially, he claimed, this was OK, but as time moved on, he started to lose his wife and family. While the external world continued to view Jonsson as a successful executive, he was extremely depressed and defeated. He continued to function by practicing “smiling depression,” which he terms in his book as the act of pretending all is well externally. For Jonsson, the death of another close executive friend, Simon, from "executive loneliness," shook his world and forced him to find a way out his abyss.
In his book, he reveals stories of many executives whom he personally knew, grappling with this issue, yet refusing to acknowledge or discuss it for fear of being looked upon negatively. Among the stories he shares is about Radu Palamariu, who kept this pain inside for a long time, until he finally shared his story on LinkedIn. This led to a huge number of other leaders also replying to his post, claiming they suffered likewise and did not know what to do about it.
Read More: Defeating the Demon of Leadership Loneliness
Executive loneliness is outlined by Jonsson, as an incredibly serious condition and, in some cases, can be fatal. Based on his own recovery experience, consultations with mental health experts, conversations with other executives who managed to recover from executive loneliness, and relevant research findings, Jonsson outlines five steps for either recovering from, or totally avoiding, executive loneliness. Let me walk through a quick summary of the 5 steps outlined by Jonnson below:
1. Taking Stock
Jonsson shares his personal recovery journey began when he started to take stock and stare reality in the eye. The first phase of recovery includes the following key elements:
- Be Honest
- Be Vulnerable
- Deploy the HAPPY process – Create new HABITS, take ACTION, fix PERCEPTIONS, align PURPOSE and figure out who YOU are.
2. Ask for Help
The key in this phase is to not stay silent about how you feel but to reach out. Many senior leaders know that people come to them for answer and advice. This is the time for leaders to change the narrative and seek help. Reaching out and getting the help needed is key for you to overcoming “executive isolation.” Get help from experts, not just from others who may be facing the situation. Experts will be able to provide you with key steps to truly rehabilitate yourself.
3. Getting Healthy
In this phase, it is not just about getting your stress and mental issues in order, it is also about getting physically healthy. Nutrition and eating and sleeping well will be very important to truly overcome executive loneliness. Overdose of sugar intake, as it is addictive and tends to be consumed by many who are suffering from executive loneliness, needs to be addressed. Sleep and relaxation also needs to be prioritised to ensure your body recovers from the blows of “executive loneliness.”
4. Nurturing Health Relationships
This is a critical element for living a good life. According to Jonsson, “relationships give our life substance and meaning.” When we live purposefully, we lose our feeling of emptiness and unfulfillment. It starts with rebuilding your relationship with yourself. Stop negativity to enter you and forgive yourself. And work addressing issues you may have with your family.
Once you have “fixed” your relationship with yourself and those closest to you, you can start building your personal network and get involved in cause-based groups. Doing good and bringing joy to others will bring significant meaning to you. Cause like supporting and developing youth or helping under-privileged folks will bring significant joy to your life. Then build a great professional network too.
5. Finding Your Purpose
Finally, create goals and write out a gratitude list. And work on these goals. And part of your goals should include working on your hobbies or things you may be passionate about. Ultimately, it is about finding your purpose and living it out. Leaders that know their purpose and live it rarely succumb to executive loneliness, as it fuels them forward. Ultimately, for most of us, our purpose will be closely linked to being of service to others. That is the greatest legacy we can leave for others.
All in all, there are some overall advice for leaders struggling with isolation, depression and loneliness in this book. The book focus is primarily on leaders who are facing these challenges and the key themes of the book can be summarised as follows:
- The pressures of being an executive, including the stress, anxiety and challenges of leadership.
- The fact that executive loneliness is extremely common, though typically hidden, and it is not something leaders are willing to talk or share about.
- There are various accelerators of executive loneliness including heavy social media usage and consumption. This needs to be addressed
- The five primary ways which Jonsson shares on how an executive can emerge stronger from this difficult place and overcome executive loneliness:
- Taking Stock
- Asking for Help
- Getting Healthy
- Nurturing Healthy Relationships
- Finding Your Purpose
Many leaders may be struggling with executive loneliness. If you are a leader experiencing such challenges, see if these steps may be helpful for you in overcoming your “executive loneliness.” One final piece of advice Jonsson leaves us at the tail-end of the book is to “always have a Plan B.”
If you suspect that you, yourself, or someone you know is suffering from executive loneliness, this book may be a great starting point to begin the journey of emerging back into the light and overcoming “executive loneliness.”
Leveraging engagement technology is a great way to decrease executive loneliness in organisations. Check out this great video below on how Happily can make a difference in your organisation: