The challenge and burden of leadership can be extremely daunting.
It can feel like traversing a mountain with little oxygen resulting in critical wellbeing and health issues.
Most leaders have worked extremely hard to climb to senior positions within organisations.
Years of study, putting in the hard yards and long nights have eventually paid off.
Working at this level can be exciting, influencing the shape of the organisation and industry direction. Leading high performing teams and making a positive impact on people.
Much is sacrificed along the way, family, friends and interests outside of work take a back seat in favour of the job.
Senior executives end up living and breathing work, not out of choice. They have just come to believe its comes with the territory.
Time at home is spent catching up on the outstanding workload or working on initiatives other executives or board members want urgently, which usually means yesterday.
Work can feel like a never-ending treadmill. Thoughts of downtime seem elusive and distant.
The beginnings of doubt
A glimmer of questioning about more sustainable ways of being and operating emerges. Because these passing thoughts are often seen as fanciful or impossible to attain, thet are quickly repressed and pushed away. Soldiering on becomes a daily mantra.
A growing number of senior executives who seek coaching support admit to surviving on only 4 to 5 hours a night. They often wake early to a knot in the stomach, worrying and ruminating about the challenges they might face in the day to come.
A lack of quality sleep along with continued high levels of stress creates the perfect storm conditions for the onset of an anxiety disorders. We also know that prolonged experience to anxiety leads to depression and a downward spiral of both mental and physical health.
Many leaders become plagued with negative thoughts about themselves and their leadership capability. Some of the common thoughts sound like this, perhaps I’ve hit the ceiling of my abilities, or maybe I’m not smart or tough enough to be able to thrive and cut it at this level. Perhaps I should resign and take on a less demanding role?
Not enjoying what has been achieved and sacrificed for can give way to feelings of bewilderment and frustration.
Burnout hurts everyone
Leaders who find themselves in this place become despondent about their career and their future. General health suffers, and many begin to suffer physical health issues related to high levels of ongoing stress.
For partners, family and friends of these leaders, seeing their loved ones seemly participate in their own demise, is painful and a cause of family tension. Relationships with family and co-workers can suffer, breakdown or worse, fail.
Feeling impossibly stuck, sinking ship bias comes into play. Many leaders will say, I’ve invested and sacrificed so much, why would I throw this all away now? I’m unhappy and exhausted most of the time, but I don’t know how to change this? I’m stuck and can’t see a way out. Perhaps I should walk away? But I can’t. Everyone is relying on me.
Maladaptive ways of managing pressure and anxiety that further impede executive performance are too often a compounding issue. Self-medication with alcohol to aid to sleep, or misuse of prescription medications is commonplace and can add to a decline in executive health.
Why is it so lonely at the top? A systemic viewpoint
The air is thinner at the top of the mountain, often too is support for executives. As leaders climb the corporate ladder, the unspoken expectation exists that they are tougher and resilient enough to withstand whatever is thrown their way. The premise for this is false and always has been.
In stark contrast, further down the hierarchy, support and positive attitudes to openly talking about managing work life balance and mental health issues is a practice many organisations proudly promote. For many organisations this is part and parcel of the employee value proposition. So why are expectations so different for senior executives?
If we compare these offerings and to senior appointments, there is usually a stark difference. In turn for an executive package, the subculture created promotes an unwritten expectation of sacrificing individual wellbeing.
The underlying unspoken but widely held view is, if you can’t handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen. The air at the top may be thinner, so too it appears is empathy and support.
Rather than asking for help, many executives are concerned about appearing vulnerable or fear being judged as weak or incompetent and therefore don’t seek out help. This fear promotes anxiety and leads to higher levels of isolation, resulting in further despair and a decline in health.
How to move forward?
Beginning to talk about the issues is a key success factor in taking action.
Professional help is essential to unpack key issues of how you got to where you are. Support means challenging old thinking patterns and working to develop new perspectives, rebuild confidence and create a positive mindset. Support will break down what seems like an unclimbable mountain. Talking to someone is the first step to regaining control.
The bigger picture – Where to from here?
The cost of poor executive wellbeing doesn’t stop with the suffering of an individual executive. The much-applauded workaholic culture ingrained in many organisations and society does nothing to serve leaders, employees or shareholders. When we treat leaders poorly, everyone suffers, people, profits and communities.
The smart countries, like New Zealand, are already begging to measure overall wellbeing rather than productivity. The smart organisations are beginning to nurture and care for their senior people and reaping the rewards.
Organisations need to embrace a new way forward because we need to change the experience of leading at senior levels from languishing to flourishing. It’s not an easy task to accomplish, but a critical focus to move from sickness to wellbeing.
What can you do
Talk with us too change the way you lead and to put you back in control of your wellbeing.