Who does the business owner turn to for help with their mental health concerns?

Quite rightly, the mental health and wellbeing of employees has been thrust into the spotlight more than ever, due to the pandemic and a series of lockdowns. But less talked about has been the impact on leaders. Who does the person at the top of the business turn to with their problems and worries?

For any good CEO or leader of a business, their primary concern will be their staff first but how can they ensure they are well supported? Here at Business Leader, we spoke to various CEOs, MDs and entrepreneurs about their ongoing concerns and how they’ve managed to cope with the stresses caused by the pandemic.

How badly are they suffering?

According to research from the School for CEOs, 22% of CEOs were at high risk of burnout during lockdown compared to 34% of executive leaders.

61% of leaders aged 24-38 were at high risk of burnout, compared with 36% of leaders over 50. Women were more at risk than men, with 47% of women experiencing burnout and exhaustion compared with 40% of men. Therefore, their age, gender and job position all seem to influence the reported stress of business leaders.

A global study by King’s Business School into the impact of the pandemic on entrepreneurs’ businesses and mental wellbeing has also found that stress worsened during the health crisis and that life satisfaction was on average 12% lower than before the pandemic.

The report, titled ‘Entrepreneurship during the Covid-19 Pandemic: A global study of entrepreneurs challenges, resilience, and well-being’, surveyed over 5,000 entrepreneurs in 23 countries that represent 75% of the world’s economic output and over half of the world’s population including the UK, France, Germany, India, USA and China.

“The stress and strains over the past two years have been undeniable for us all,” says Emma Robinson, Founder and Managing Director of Yorkshire-based executive headhunting firm Red Diamond Executive Headhunters.

“As executive headhunters, we are witnessing business leaders exiting the workplace, retiring early or taking stock and stepping back in their roles in favour of a healthier work-life balance. For those of us who remain, burnout, anxiety and stresses we didn’t even know existed are now a reality: who knew the drive to work was actually good for us?

“How we address this is paramount to the success or failure of the future of our businesses. Be responsible for your own wellbeing, no one wants to work with a cranky, stressed out and irritable boss.”

Although seldom talked about in comparison to employee wellbeing, it appears that many of those in charge have also failed to avoid the pandemic’s mental wrath. But what specifically has been bothering business leaders and what have they been doing, if anything, to cope?

What stresses have business leaders and CEOs been coping with?

The global study by King’s Business School found that most entrepreneurs worry about their own and their family health (57.7%). Two fifths of entrepreneurs (39.7%) also reported that uncertainty and unpredictability for their business were major causes of concern.

Nearly half of entrepreneurs (48.8%) were frustrated by the restricted social contact due to the pandemic. 61% saw the very existence of their business under threat in the pandemic, and the associated stress also impacted their self-care, which is critical for maintaining mental health.

We also spoke to Alan Furley, Director at recruitment consultancy, ISL, who said: “Making time to reflect and switch off has been a big one. For me, the walk to work was a time to think uninterrupted, process the day, and switch off before relaxing in the evening. Walking from the home office setup in the bedroom to my lounge hasn’t created the same opportunity!”

Another potential cause of stress for business leaders right now is the challenge of adjusting to hybrid working.

Jane Craven, Sales Director at EPOS, commented: “According to our latest research, the Understanding Sound Experiences report, which was conducted by IPSOS Denmark on behalf of EPOS, for the second year running, revealed over half (53%) of bosses globally expect employees to work more from the office, compared with 26% of employees.

“However, this huge disparity in expectations between business leaders and their workforce regarding the return to the office highlights that many employers may once again be unprepared to adjust to this new transitional period as hybrid working becomes the new normal.”

The King’s Business School study also found that despite high levels of remote working, only 15% of entrepreneurs reported loneliness at work as problematic. Therefore, for CEOs and business leaders, the potential stresses caused by hybrid working may be more about managing employee expectations than their personal difficulty of remote working.

Have business leaders been able to access help and what does help look like?

The global study by King’s Business School found that over half of entrepreneurs asked (57%) experienced good emotional support (others being willing to listen to their work-related problems most or all of the time). Yet less than a third were able to draw on practical hands-on support (32%) and informal financial help (28%, with substantial variation across countries).

Alan Furley continued: “During the pandemic I’ve spoken to several leaders privately who have stepped away from their roles, because of the importance they’ve placed on positive mental health.

“I’ve used a daily online journal system to record how I’m feeling and see what’s given me energy. That’s helped bring back a regular moment each day for me to pause and gather my thoughts.

“One thing this journal helped me see was the link between regular exercise and how I was feeling. I’ve gone from leaving my bike out in the garden for the last 6 years to getting out on it a couple of times a week, and that’s been a big boost.

“It’s sometimes a challenge to find the time, but we’ve recently made a permanent 4.5 day week at ISL – something that we introduced to help the wellbeing of our team during lockdown – so Friday afternoons are the key.”

Noam Sagi, Psychotherapist and Co-founder of 58 Wellbeing, a health and wellbeing centre based in London, said: “Spending quality time with family was the most important tool that helped me.

“Less doing more being, spending time with our dog and walking twice a day was a good mental health break. Simple things, being honest, authentic, real. Allowing myself to go through the motions without too much judgment and seeing them as clouds coming and going.

“In terms of external vices, the media, the numbers, the constant dialogue, I am taking it with a pinch of salt. I really try to minimise my exposure to the news and media and choose a better use of my time such as watching a movie with my family.”

Has the pandemic helped to raise awareness of CEOs’ mental wellbeing?

Whilst it’s clear that the pandemic has been stressful for all of us in many ways, there is a feeling that it has helped to bring mental wellbeing more into the public eye. But has that awareness extended to business leaders and CEOs?

“As a result of the recent pandemic, CEOs are likely more aware that they need to look after their wellbeing and mental health for the benefit of themselves and their organisation,” continued Noam.

“Being a CEO is a privileged position and one that comes with responsibility. A responsible CEO will realise that they need a healthy mindset in order to lead their team and take their organisation forwards and they have a responsibility to do so.

“For this reason, one could argue that a good approach to health and wellbeing starts with the CEO and follows onto the rest of the organisation. It’s the same analogy as a parent on an airplane that needs to fit their own oxygen mask first before attending to their children.

“I work with many CEOs who are viewed as strong alpha heroes, but when they are in my consulting room, they are as vulnerable as the next person who comes to see me.

“The pandemic has helped to shift the perception of power and opened the door for more vulnerability and authenticity among leaders, this is a good thing.”