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Are we forgetting senior executives’ health?

In Men’s Health Week, it’s time to turn the spotlight on senior executives. Of course, not all of them are men, but a large percentage are. There’s no shortage of evidence that shows that C-Suite executives have been more adversely affected by the changes and working conditions of the COVID 19 pandemic, the ensuing lockdowns and working from home.

In Men’s Health Week, time to turn the spotlight on senior executives. Of course, not all of them are men, but a large percentage are. There’s no shortage of evidence that shows that C-Suite executives have been more adversely affected by the changes and working conditions of the COVID 19 pandemic, the ensuing lockdowns and working from home. Much as they might have desired a return to ‘normal’, working patterns have undergone a permanent shift with many workers continuing to prefer to work from home, adding to the difficulty of managing them.

In Grapevine Leaders recently there was an article headed ‘A mass exodus of senior leaders could be about to hit business hard.’ One of the findings quoted in the article is that in a survey of over 1,100 employees by capital management technology business Ceridian last year a whopping 79% of respondents had struggled with burnout, with 58% of them reporting that they were actively seeking or open to new employment.

Nearly three quarters (70%) of C-Suite executives are currently experiencing feelings of burnout, described in some quarters as an epidemic. This is markedly higher than mid-level (55%) and first-level (45%) management personnel. Moreover, when looking at burnout frequency, 40% of C-Suite executives said they ‘always’ felt burnt out, compared to 28% of mid-level and 15% of first-level management staff. 53% of executives are struggling with mental health issues, compared to 45% in the wider workforce.

In a group of CEOs that I am a member of, three recently confessed to being near to breakdown. Nearly all of them and their businesses managed the pandemic and lockdowns pretty well but one of them said, ‘We were told the pandemic would last three weeks. When we survived 2020, we thought 2021 would be the year, then we hoped it would be 2022. Now we’re facing a war in Ukraine, staff shortages, rising prices and inflation. It’s just cruel.’

Many executives have recognised the need to support employees who have been similarly, but not as badly affected by these conditions and put in place wellness initiatives in their companies. However, fewer have recognised this need for themselves and would rather adopt either a stoical approach or deny that there is a problem.

This carries huge risks as the effects of their ill-health can be far reaching, affecting share prices in their extreme. Senior executives have huge responsibilities, hence the stress, and the implications for being sub-par on business effectiveness, decision making, and leadership are also great.

This seems to me to be the crux of the problem. Stress and burnout are real but senior executives find it very hard to admit that there’s a problem. What are some of the factors at play here?

  • C-Level leaders have risen through the ranks due to a combination of factors, from inspirational leadership and high motivation levels to visionary qualities and enormous amounts of hard work, which can be to the detriment of their own personal lives.
  • Chronic fatigue, abnormal levels of self-criticism, and behaviour that is contrary to personal leadership ideals are some of the ways burnout can manifest itself in a C-Suite executive. High alcohol intake, sleep deprivation, poor diet or loss of appetite are also signs of burnout and high levels of stress. Among many senior executives there is a feeling that all this just goes with the territory, that they just have to live up to the expectation that they will be bullet proof, always show their A-game and be successful.
  • In her book ‘The Burnout Epidemic’ Jennifer Moss points out that workplace environments that require more emotional involvement, empathy and personal investment can further increase the risk of burnout and it is hard to deny that this does not characterise the conditions in which many C-level executives work. Many have tried hard to show support and empathy to their employees in difficult conditions, but where do they find their own support?
  • Because they are highly motivated, they will be particularly receptive to any advice about improving productivity and productivity hacks. There is lots of advice on social media on what it takes to be successful at the top of an organisation such as ‘Do not stop when you are exhausted, stop when you are done’. How do executives find the time and have the ability to distinguish good advice from bad?
  • In many companies there is a culture of people believing that working nonstop connotes higher status and more money with products from Bluetooth headsets, weighted blankets and sophisticated delivery services to enable the trend. Long hours and being busy are often seen as a badge of honour. There are companies where not sleeping eight hours per night is considered a status symbol associated with power players and over-achievers. It is not hard to predict the effect of leaders talking up their ability to work eighty or ninety hours a week, cutting sleep and toilet breaks. Examples include Elon Musk who has spoken openly about his gruelling 120-hour working weeks, acute stress and sleep deprivation. He told the New York Timeshe has barely taken time off since 2001. The problem is that he is likely to be seen by some as a role model.

There are many arguments in favour of executives making an investment in their wellbeing, their leading by example also having a beneficial effect on the rest of the company. Too often, wellbeing for senior executives is seen as a nice to have rather than a necessity, but there is a very clear business case for the investment.

  • Protecting the company’s investment. Sports franchisees that pay top dollar for star athletes require them to exercise, eat better and take care of their overall wellness during the season. The same should be true for C-level employees as companies pay more for those roles, particularly the top job. CNBC reported that In 2016, the CEOs of the top 350 U.S. firmsearned on average $15.6 million – which is three times the average salary of a professional baseball, basketball or football player. Considering that the Economic Policy Institute estimates that average CEO pay is 271 times the nearly $58,000 annual average pay of the typical American worker, it could be said that the C-Suite should be held to a higher personal maintenance standard.
  • The cost of replacing someone includes the cost of their absence due to ill health, recruiting someone to replace them and time taken for them to be onboarded and get up to speed.
  • What is more difficult to quantify but a reality nonetheless is the cost of lack of efficiency, delayed decisions, and bad decisions as a result of ill-health, burnout or being generally sub-par.

Where are HR Directors in all of this? They are senior executives themselves, but don’t find it any easier to admit to needing help. If anything, they will have been one of the groups hardest hit by the working conditions brought about by lockdown: organising remote working and then hybrid working, dealing with resignations, staff and talent shortages, demands for higher pay. Very often, they notice when other senior executives are experiencing problems and try to support them as best as they can, but it’s an added pressure.

There is very little in place to support C-Suite executives currently and what exists is fragmented, for example, some resilience training alongside some fitness training or focused on one area, for example, mental health. It is important to distinguish between wellness, the physical aspects of health, and the more holistic concept of wellbeing, the mental, psychological and spiritual (including purpose) and to put in place programmes for C-Suite executives which cover all aspects of wellbeing for the ultimate benefit of themselves and the business.

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