Article: It’s lonely at the top: The workplace isolation people don’t talk about

Employee Engagement

It’s lonely at the top: The workplace isolation people don’t talk about

More people than we realize suffer from work-related emotional challenges, including those at the very top. Greater awareness and understanding is needed if we are to tackle the problems of isolation and depression in the workplace.
It’s lonely at the top: The workplace isolation people don’t talk about

People do not like to admit that they are anxious, depressed, or just lonely. Not to their loved ones, not to close friends, and certainly not to their colleagues, let alone the team members who report to them at work. Estimates by EGN Singapore suggest that 30 percent of executives in Singapore are, or were, clinically depressed, and yet 82 percent find it difficult to talk about loneliness.

One major barrier is the social stigma associated with the condition, said Nick Jonsson, the managing director of EGN Singapore. Many people do not want to be perceived as having such a problem, and to protect themselves, they frequently refrain from speaking up even when offered a “safe” environment for doing so.

“It's a topic that no one wants to touch on, no one wants to talk about,” he told People Matters. “But we must. We must understand that it's OK to talk about it.”

Jonsson himself nearly became one of the WHO's statistics in 2018, when a prolonged bout of depression caused him to neglect his own health to the point of developing serious medical complications. After recovering, he launched an advocacy campaign to raise awareness of the condition, especially among senior executives who, he believes, are significantly more prone to mental health issues because the nature of their job can leave them profoundly isolated.

A solitary, high-pressure existence

People Matters heard from a number of senior executives based in Singapore, who shared their experiences with loneliness and depression on condition of anonymity. Common threads ran through their stories: internal fears of appearing weak or reliant on others, massive external pressures to perform, hits to their self-worth when situations did not go as expected. These are people in the prime of their lives and careers, with families and high-ranking jobs, who were relocated to take up leadership positions. On the surface, they are very successful. Inside, however, not everything is going as well.

Part of the problem is, of course, that the characteristics that make someone professionally successful can also make them less likely to acknowledge personal challenges, or to seek help even when they do.

Instead, said Jonsson, they are more likely to reject the notion that they need a hand.

“I have not come across a corporate high-end manager who is not an insecure overachiever,” observed psychotherapist Maria Micha, who runs a counseling center in Singapore. She described such situations as a vicious cycle: the pressure to succeed sends them into a spiral of anxiety and depression, which drives them to seek more indicators of success, which in turn creates still more pressure to succeed. And all too often, they lack the self-awareness to realize what is happening.

"A lot of these people don't have the time to develop self-awareness," said Jonsson. "They are so busy, they have the image to hold up, they move from one job to another, and they never get to stop and look at what’s happening with them.”

There are ways to open up and find some relief

The only real way to break the vicious cycle is for the person to open up: to speak to someone about their difficulties and seek treatment, which could make a huge difference in their quality of life. It could even save their lives in some cases, Jonsson points out; depression is one of the top 10 causes of early death.

Even for those who most firmly deny that they are in difficulty, there are ways to find a human connection without feeling that they have made themselves vulnerable. Some senior executives shared how they turned to co-working spaces to find a sense of community: one CEO said, "Many of us (in the co-working space) are in the same position, as the sole representative of our company...we are experiencing many of the same feelings, concerns, and challenges. It's nice to be able to share your thoughts with like-minded people, without judgement, as you build relationships and support each other."

Others participated in peer groups and industry networking sessions; expats in search of a connection with their home approached international chambers of commerce. Some turned to close friends, and realized in the process that one or more of those friends were going through similar issues. And a few made the decision to draw support from their spouses: this, said Jonsson, is possibly the easiest way for someone to open up, when their spouse approaches them first and offers them understanding.

“I know of many cases where a relationship or even a life has been saved because the wife was very persistent,” he recounted.

And there are other ways: oddly enough, he added, sometimes having other problems that require professional assistance can open a path to tackling one's emotional challenges. If, for example, someone is going through treatment for alcoholism, the discipline and therapy involved can help with awareness and understanding, and also make the person more open to seeking help for other difficulties.

Employers can help, too

Often, all that is needed is a little understanding on employers’ part: the acknowledgement that the high-flyer running the business needs to be treated like a human, too, and there is more to evaluating a person than financial results. The actions an employer takes could be as simple as making mentoring and counselling resources easily and visibly available, or as complex as creating a culture that acknowledges emotional challenges and helps employees work through them.

“When companies base evaluations on concrete metrics such as balance sheet, P&L, or headcount, these are good, objective indicators of a person's performance, but not of the person's emotional situation,” observed Lee Quane, the regional director of global mobility firm ECA International. There needs to be more support in terms of counselling, he said, especially during a trying period like this pandemic.

Some senior executives expressed a wish for greater access to mentorship and counselling, or for a platform where they can discuss such issues in a positive and healthy manner. Others simply wanted people to be upfront and honest with them, even if that meant having a difficult conversation. One said:

“Sometimes, just an occasional check-in that focuses on how my family and I are doing, rather than what ultimately becomes a sales-pipeline update.”

Sadly, not all companies are mature enough to understand or handle the emotional difficulties of their employees, as at least one senior executive shared with People Matters. But those who can manage it are well on the way to creating a healthier, more positive organizational culture that is able to support employees and address issues more transparently.“That’s why I began with the C-suite,” Jonsson said of his campaign, which targets primarily senior executives. “When you can get this in place at the top, it trickles down to the rest of the company. It helps make things better for everyone else.”

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Topics: Employee Engagement, Talent Management, #MentalHealth

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