Top executives today are more than ever likely to experience heightened levels of stress, anxiety and burnout. But it doesn't have to be this way.
In our conversations with C-suite executives, a recurring sentence seems to pop up: “I am being besieged on multiple fronts with a multitude of challenges and leadership dilemmas and it is negatively impacting my well-being.”
Navigating the complex and intricate landscape of enterprises, top management faces escalating pressure and confronting choices driven by multiple strategic challenges such as e.g.: Technological innovation, digital transformation, global competition, sustainability/ESG agendas, talent management (such as e.g. the Grand Resignation and related organizational side effects), health management (such as e.g. the pandemic) and (geo)political and economic insecurities. So, no wonder, the C-suite today feel stretched and impacted on their well-being.
In a recent (2022) study conducted by Deloitte and Workplace Intelligence of 1,050 C-level executives in the US, Europe and Asia/Pacific, a concerning lack of well-being among C-suite executives are being depicted. Up until now, only little attention has been paid to the well-being among the C-suite - hereunder how they’re coping with all the heightened pressure and the increased demands placed upon them. Unfortunately, the C-suite themselves are also struggling to prioritize their own well-being, in spite of 41% feeling stressed, 40% feeling overwhelmed, 36% feeling exhausted, 30% feeling lonely and 26% feeling depressed. In recent years we have experienced increasing quit rates among executives due to a lack of well-being. In fact, nearly 70% of high-level executives are considering quitting their job to find one that prioritizes their well-being, and with the new Generation Z executives moving into the C-suite, studies indicate that well-being is gaining focus. In fact, 89% of the C-suite say that improving their well-being is a top priority, even stating that this is more important to them than progressing their career.
With top executives being expected to deliver and be available 24/7 (something they are also well-remunerated for), this is no easy task. In fact, 74% of executives say they’re facing obstacles when it comes to achieving their well-being goals—and these are largely tied to their job. In fact, the top two obstacles that people cited were a heavy workload or stressful job (30%), and not having enough time because of long work hours (27%). Moreover, one out of four executives said they don’t disconnect because their workload would be unmanageable when they return (25%) and they’re afraid they would miss out on important messages or emails (24%).
“With Generation Z executives currently transitioning into the C-suite, pressure will mount on the boards of their companies - often consisting of Generation X board members - to prioritize the well-being of their C-suite as it directly impacts the well-being of the entire organization”
Henrik Brabrand, CEO at Albright Partners
Making decisions is an intricate part of every business. What distinguishes a successful business from a failing one is the sum of good business critical decisions made. C-level executives cannot afford to make too many wrong decisions and their well-being can be a decisive factor in exercising sound judgment. So, there is a clear imperative to invest more in the holistic health and well-being of top executives, yet many are finding it difficult to make time for it. But, how can C-suite leaders improve their own well-being? Here is our take on how this better can be achieved:
Identifying stress/burnout indicators. Stress and burnout can creep up unnoticed until it's too late. Signs to watch out for include persistent fatigue, difficulties in concentration, sleep disturbances, and a significant change in appetite. Moreover, signs such as physical pain (e.g., headaches and stomachaches), mood swings, and irritability should be noticed. Studies indicate that mindful leadership can help executives stay focused, manage stress, and lead more effectively. According to Mindful.org, mindfulness can improve decision-making and foster emotional intelligence. It’s essential to seek professional help if feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression become overwhelming. Leading mental health organisations like Mind provide resources and advice on when to seek help.
Acknowledge loneliness. Often dismissed and rarely discussed, many CXOs are plagued by feelings of isolation once they take on the top job. Findings from a CEO Snaspshot Survey reveal that half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their role, and of this group, 61 percent believe it hinders their performance. First-time CEOs are particularly susceptible to this isolation. Nearly 70 percent of first-time CEOs who experience loneliness report that the feelings negatively affect their performance. It's worth noting that emotions such as stress, depression and anxiety drive most cases of work-related ill health. In 2020/21, the HSE reported that 32.5M working days were lost. Acknowledging feelings of loneliness or isolation can be a relief in itself. Constantly denying these emotions in exchange for a (false) sense of self-assurance is exhausting. Leaders should take a moment each day to process and accept how complex, and even scary, their responsibilities can be, and they should consider teaming up with an Executive Coach to process all the emotions associated with feelings of loneliness. The more accepting a leader is of this reality, the easier it will be to seek and accept support in dealing with it.
Cultivate a group of trusted advisors. A reliable support system is crucial to CEO achievement, and CEOs should begin cultivating a group of trusted advisors from day one. This support system must work in two ways. Not only do these advisors provide a safe outlet for a CEO to express concerns of both personal and business character, but they must also reliably provide honest, unvarnished feedback.
Prioritize exercise. The link between positive emotions and physical activity has been researched time and time again. One study found that stress has a substantial negative impact in the mood of people who were sedentary compared with those who exercised regularly. In spite of 94% of the C-suite agreeing that it’s important for executives to be health-savvy, it is far from all employing good exercise habits. So, regular exercise, alongside a balanced diet, can significantly improve mental health by reducing stress levels and improving mood.
Prioritize social well-being. Beyond physical activity, social wellbeing is also important. As previously mentioned appr. 50% of CEO’s expressed feelings of loneliness and the C-suite are struggling to prioritise their well-being as work takes up so much of their time – day and night. In fact, 71% of the C-suite respondents in the Deloitte study reported that they aren’t able to take time away from work and disconnect. This is 10% more than that of non-exec employees. In order to improve their social well-being, it is crucial that executives direct attention to their relational capital and step up the prioritization of people outside work that are 1) most important to them – family, friends etc., and/or 2) people with whom they can share their interests and passions.
Focus on the business critical decisions. The executive must never push aside the decisions that really matter. Rather than focusing on all the nitty gritty details, tackling the major obstacles head-on will increase confidence and make the next big judgment call easier.
Stop building a façade of unbeatable confidence. CXOs and other leaders go to great lengths to maintain a façade of level-headed confidence — concealing any insecurities or feelings of anxiety. In today’s high-stakes business environment, leaders cannot afford to ignore doubts and anxieties that risk impacting their entire organization. Hence leaders must acknowledge these feelings and work proactively to defeat them. Moreover, creating an open dialogue about mental health can combat stigma and encourage individuals to seek help when needed. As leaders, executives can model this openness, fostering a culture of mental health support throughout the organisation.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, or in this case, what’s good for the C-suite is good for the employee. Poor well-being results in poor quality of life and work, impacting both leaders and their workforce, hence investing in well-being at the C-level, not only benefits the C-suite but the entire organization. Prioritizing mental health is essential for long-term success in the demanding world of the C-suite and hence key for executives to enhance their leadership effectiveness and boost their overall well-being.
So, where to start?
Essentially, as a C-suite executive (and for executives in general) you need to create a personal business plan to improve your well-being and create a more holistic and better life. This involves better understanding yourself, identifying your drivers, setting your goals and designing your future.
Essentially, you need to start with the SELF first before you are able to effectively grow and manage the WE (the company) and COMMUNITY (customers, partners and everyone in their ecosystem). So, the first step is self-awareness to honestly and openly assess your own well-being within areas such as; emotional, career, social, financial, physical and community. The next step is entering into a dialogue with your board about what well-being means for you, the C-suite and for the organization as a whole. The final step is engulfed in the concept of “putting on your own oxygen mask first” - meaning understanding and investing in yourself through self-care i.e. launching initiatives that improve the well-being of yourself.
Click here to read our article on: "Leadership Dilemmas."
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