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Opinion: Executive exhaustion alert: rethinking ways to salvage top-end talent

There is a deep need to acknowledge that everyone is susceptible to stretches of psychological challenge, and when the boss suffers, everyone suffers.
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Two-and-a-half years into the pandemic, we find a senior leadership that feels drained, contending with physical and mental health challenges, and alone and unsupported. 

Have sympathy for the boss. The era of executive exhaustion is upon us.

It is fair to say that pity is tough to muster for those up the pay grade with the privileges and the prime parking spot. But research is showing that those leaders are spent, stressed and suffering. Their influence, though, means their problems are everyone’s.

Human nature is such that people can be told to use their oxygen mask first in a troubled airplane yet many will still try first to assist those they deem in less advantaged straits. This appears to have been the general case for the C-suite in COVID: they showered greater attention to those they were leading and had less attention left to take care of themselves. It hasn’t worked out.

The result two-and-a-half years into the pandemic is a senior leadership that feels drained, contending with physical and mental health challenges, and alone and unsupported. 

More than a year ago, Deloitte Canada and LifeWorks Research Group (formerly known as Morneau Shepell) surveyed a large Canadian cohort of 1,200 leaders and found four-fifths of them were fatigued, almost all said their mental health and well-being had declined in the pandemic and half were ready to either pack it in or drastically cut their commitments. 

A year later, says Deloitte executive adviser Zabeen Hirji, there is little reason to believe those numbers would have improved. 

“The headline here for businesses is that this is not sustainable,” she says.

If 2020 and 2021 were rough waters, it’s not as if 2022 has been smooth sailing, what with inflation, borrowing cost increases, supply chain snafus, labour shortages and the Russian invasion of Ukraine layering on the sheer insecurity and impact of the coronavirus, the restructuring of how and where many of us work and the physical restrictions and their social implications.

I accept this study’s credibility from experience and attest to what I have seen among business leaders in this community. The weariness took some time to strike. 

The urgency and uncertainty in those early months hit people differently – as in how soon, how severe, not if but when – and managers were called upon in ways they’d never been. Some, as I sensed it, didn’t take sufficient care of themselves to be the best leaders for others. They didn’t adhere to a leadership principle that you could only be a strong leader if you ensured you were strong, period.

Hirji sees no choice but to fix what ails the leader: “If they’re not healthy … then the quality of their decisions will suffer.”

Rather than take another study that would likely find the same characteristics, Deloitte and LifeWorks instead unfurled a playbook last week that boards would be wise to digest for the operational chiefs they guide. 

The first step: there is a deep need to suffocate the stigma about mental health and acknowledge that even at the top, sometimes even more at the top, most everyone is susceptible to stretches of psychological challenges. 

The place to start is with managers themselves, because the study found four in 10 had a “self-stigma” about accepting, even acknowledging, their mental health challenges. Likely that’s in part because more than half feared that would be costly to their careers. Thus the need for companies to create workspaces of psychological safety, to invest in training and resources and to recognize the value of leaders discussing vulnerabilities. 

The second area is a more challenging one, because it calls upon a dropping of the dukes in exchange for a buddy system – peer support in place of careerist combat – as a method to restore productivity and well-being. In many instances (thankfully not the one I occupy), this requires a change in the ultra-competitive, zero-sum-gamesmanship of workplace politics. 

One would think that collaborative survivalism would be self-evident by now, but I talk to many managers who say they feel more distant and distrusting and resentful of their colleagues, so their situations and likely many others remain worrisome and will be difficult to unpack.

The most profound recommendations concern the response to the pandemic executive with one foot out the door, because they call for a rethinking of work to salvage the talent at the top. This is a great objective in principle, a formidable task in practice. 

For most every firm, this requires a reconsideration of time management that on the surface takes your best-rewarded talent and demands less – less presence, less facetime, less bossiness, if you will – in the hope you eventually get more. It requires delegation and a relinquishing of power, difficult to do when the pandemic itself has left many managers feeling as if they have lost control and no longer have as many answers.

It would feel risky at first to entrench as permanent and not just pandemic-era the shortened meetings with fewer participants, the designated me-time to recharge and the commitment to flexibility on where and how work is conducted. 

That wasn’t the archetype the corporate world created. Given the research, though, what other choice is there? •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.