Leadership and mental health: "Bosses burn out too"


Interesting read in the Singapore Business Times from Anthea Ong, founder and chairperson of WorkWell Leaders, a non-profit collective of CEOs and leaders focused on championing workplace mental health and wellbeing.

The key quote for me:

"Employee mental health has never been given more attention by employers. However, experts say late-stage pandemic fatigue is also taking a toll on many leaders."

And the full article:

Bosses burn out too; leaders need to be well to lead well

At the start of 2021, I noticed a change in my behaviour. I was no longer able to wake up before sunrise, and became increasingly disengaged, with my team managers across the different initiatives I am involved with telling me constantly of the ugly and bad happening while being cynical and sensitive to what was said to me, and about me.

I also started questioning my ability and integrity to realise the purpose-driven aspirations for the different projects, including for my social enterprise Hush TeaBar, when a burnt out manager and a burned up team struggled to keep it together, harmoniously.

I know these to be early signs of burnout from the Maslach Burnout Inventory but I did not "let" myself burn… yet. As a leader and employer to more than a few, I didn’t think I could/should because I felt I had to hold it together to keep jobs intact and hopes alive.

More than 9 in 10 (92 per cent) workers in Singapore are experiencing burnout, with 9 in 25 (36 per cent) reporting high or extreme levels, according to Ceridian’s 2022 Pulse of Talent report.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines "burnout" as an occupational phenomenon in the International Classification of Diseases’ chapter on "factors influencing health status".

WHO notes that burnout results from chronic workplace stress and that 3 dimensions characterise it: energy depletion/exhaustion; increasingly negative feelings towards the job; and reduced professional efficacy.

The truth behind leadership burnout

The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone; employee mental health has never been given more attention by employers. However, experts say late-stage pandemic fatigue is also taking a toll on many leaders.

Workers turn to them for answers, clients rely on them for solutions and companies lean on them in times of crisis. They have had to hustle and pivot with challenging business conditions, anxious employees, split teams, ever changing directives on safety and tests, work from home arrangements becoming hybrid, and of course, meeting performance targets.

According to 2020 and 2021 survey data from Gallup, leadership and manager burnout is only getting worse. Development Dimensions International’s Global Leadership Forecast 2021 reveals that nearly 60 per cent of leaders reported they feel used up at the end of the workday, which is a strong indicator of burnout.

A survey by LifeWorks and Deloitte Canada released in 2021 found 82 per cent of senior leaders reported feeling exhausted. In my circle alone, more than a few chief executive officers (CEOs) of large local organisations and multinational companies have called it a day in the last year – and are not joining another employer.

A 2021 Women in the Workplace 2021 research by McKinsey & Company found that women are burning out increasingly more than men given the gendered roles they still play in the family during lockdowns and work-from-home arrangements.

The study also found that women are doing 60 per cent more work when it comes to supporting the emotional well-being of employees. This effect signals a significant risk for companies losing their top female leaders and the advancements they’ve made.

A coaching client of mine left the US$300 million multinational company she led as CEO after devoting much of her personal time taking care of those under her charge throughout most of the pandemic, while still remarkably achieving the organisation’s performance targets.

Efforts like these are often unseen and undervalued, and the added stress that accompanies the increased workload is leading many to their breaking point.

CEOs and leaders are supposed to be cheerleaders; they are working hard to keep things going but some are running out of gas and burning out. They are paying a mental health price for it. Boards and organisational HR need to be concerned about it as this has a ripple effect throughout the workplace and impacts the organisation’s ESG aspirations.

The need to be well to lead well

Some might be quick to dismiss the challenges of leaders due to the perception that they "earn big bucks" so they should be prepared to cope with the escalating responsibility and stress.

Even if they don’t earn big bucks (not anymore in my case), leaders are still assumed to have the "power" and resources to make lives easier for themselves magically even under tremendous stress. I once had a team member say to me that "no pain or challenge will get you down because of where and who you are" (which is obviously not true given my colossal emotional collapse 16 years ago).

We often forget that CEOs and leaders are humans behind the big title and role; their grief, stress and pain are not any less nor do they deserve less compassion when they are suffering or struggling – "big bucks" or not.

Someone once said that burnout is what happens when you try to avoid being human for too long. Indeed, the perception that CEOs and senior executives should demonstrate unwavering leadership and steadfast support of their people, come what may, also increases fears of seeking help.

It’s lonely at the top. Some believe that achieving a prominent role, recognition, or financial reward comes at the cost of loneliness. However, the unwillingness to discuss such pressures with those in similar positions can lead to severe "power stress" and burnout.

That’s what WorkWell Leaders try to do with their closed-door, members-only semi-annual CEO breakfast dialogues, CEO buddy programme, leaders’ assessment and wellbeing guides. Formed in May 2018 as an informal leaders’ network and incorporated as a non-profit company limited by guarantee since August 2021, WorkWell Leaders brings together CEOs and leaders to champion mental wellbeing as a strategic priority to build a mentally healthy culture and thriving workplaces.

At their 5th CEO Dialogue held last month with over 55 member CEOs and leaders, the feedback was overwhelmingly unanimous that the closed door forum provided a safe space for sharing; exchanging life stories, struggles and leadership practices in an authentic manner without showing up with the obligatory cheerleading was what the leaders found most meaningful and impactful.

In my breakout group, the CEO of one of the world’s largest financial institutions shared his guilt when he unwittingly "transfers" his "power stress" from work on to his family members.

Burnt out bosses burn up their people; human-centred leadership is not possible if it doesn’t include self compassion. Leaders must take care of themselves so that they can take care of those under their care.

I pressed the pause button on Hush TeaBar last year so the previous team could move on to heal. Then I finally let myself "burn out" in September after testing positive for Helicobacter pylori where an aggressive therapy that ensued knocked me out completely for a good month or so.

Just because you take breaks doesn’t mean you are broken; seeking help and getting rest is a sign of strength, a good leadership practice. And Hush resumed this year, thriving as a healthy workplace for the new deaf and hearing team to flourish as they bring the Hush Experience of signing and silence to more workplaces and schools once again.

Also once again, I start my days before the sun rises to take in the promise of a new day as I meditate. So I am well to lead well for the day ahead.

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