This, right here, my friends is a tricky topic. The maintenance and advancement of mental health among leaders, especially senior leaders, is quickly becoming a top conversation in psychology and counseling circles around the globe. Remote and hybrid work have provided so many amazing opportunities, but in turn it has increased self-isolation and loneliness in the global workforce.
I want to be clear up front. Yes, I am a Doctor, but of that flavor! My Doctorate is in Organizational Change and Leadership. I am not a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist, however, I have experienced this sort of loneliness first-hand. Throughout my leadership career, up until the pandemic hit, I was leading high performing, fast-paced in-person teams with a hunger for success. We were a herd that was moving through leadership storms in a powerful way, charging through the proverbial snow and ice that came with high level decision making.
Once the pandemic hit, everything changed. We were forced to work from home and in shifts, which meant that our in-person interaction went from daily, to almost non-existent. It was so tough... After a few months of restructuring and organizational shifting, I left my team (in amazing hands) in search of greener pastures. I found myself at an amazing, award winning company leading a team of remote employees and it was amazing - at first.
Since our team was completely remote, we interacted through video-chat, phone calls and emails, only getting together once a year. Leadership and human interaction looked different... The feel of a warm handshake was replaced by chat rooms and packed schedules. As an extrovert, I felt extremely lonely. Let's put this into the context of the American Bison.
Herd animals like the bison live anywhere from 10-20 years depending on their surroundings. The herd mentality is what keeps them alive. They reproduce within their herd, defend their herd, and work as a herd in order to survive. According to the National Wildlife Federation, a herd animal separated from the herd has a life expectancy of only 1 year. Basically, without the herd, the bison dies. In their case, predators, storms, and other natural phenomena eventually take the loner out. It's sad, but such is life as a leader!
A recent study from Deloitte found that, while mental health challenges in the work place after the pandemic are significant, the C-Suite are far from immune.
"C-suite executives themselves are not immune. Although far less attention has been paid to well-being among the C-suite—how they’re faring, the increased demands placed upon them, and whether these factors are influencing their desire to stay in their leadership roles—some recent research points to increasing quit rates among executives." (Fisher, Hatfield, Silverglate, 2022)
These are the leaders of the herd. They are in charge of feeding the herd, caring for the herd, and the ultimate survival of the herd. That's a lot of pressure. So, let's look at a few tips to decrease loneliness at the top, middle, and the beginning.
Make sure that you are taking care of yourself physically: Physical health is outrageously important at any level of career - and just life in general. Biologically, physical activity increases endorphin release in the body increasing your mood, increasing brain activity and capacity, and just plain makes you feel better. Take some time to get up from your desk and take a walk. My good friend and colleague Dr. Theresa Larson, DPT would say that physical exercise and movement is one of the most important parts of becoming the best leader you can be.
Reach out to people: Yes, leadership can be lonely. But taking the time to put together your support system is CRITICAL to overcoming negative mental health spirals. Find people you trust and build a "Mental Health Board of Directors". These are people who you will go to lunch with and vent to. These are the people who will help you problem solve. This is your herd! These are other lead Bison who will charge into the storm of mental health with you. They are there for you and you for them. Also, it is ALWAYS ok to seek out counseling. This shows strength as a leader and NOT weakness. My good friend and podcast co-host Geoffrey Roche is an expert on leading from the heart and a huge advocate for mental health counseling in senior leadership.
Mindfullness is next to greatness: Another great friend and colleague, Jon Macaskill says that our brains are gold, and that we should treat them that way. As strong willed and powerful buffalo leaders, we will be faced with crisis. How you handle crisis will determine how you and your herd make it through the storm. So, when crisis hits, slow down for a second. Take a few box breathes (Ask Jon about that) and really think about the situation and the importance of time in decision making. Stress during crisis further isolates leaders and can make them feel overwhelmed by the pressure of having to succeed. The American Bison is not a fast animal. It moves through the storm slowly and deliberately taking deep breathes while taking each powerful step. Slow down and think. It may not be as scary as it first seems.
As a herd, we have to take care of each other. Leadership can be lonely but it doesn't have to be. We WILL face challenges that will push us outside of our comfort zones and into uncomfortable places. If we let it, the pressure can create a storm of mental health that we can't get out of. But, there is good news here. We are a herd! We all joined this herd for a reason and are in this together. Mental health storms will come at the lead buffalo. If that lead buffalo is brave enough to reach out to the herd, is taking care of themselves in between storms, and has built up a culture of trust within the herd, these storms don't stand a chance!
Deloitte, The C-Suite's Role in Well-Being, https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/topics/leadership/employee-wellness-in-the-corporate-workplace.html