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To Hell With Lonely; It’s Very Stressful at the Top

Long working hours, tough decisions, uncertainty, and the pandemic have taken their toll on the mental health of business leaders . . .

At the end of last year, I gave a presentation on executive stress at the HOSPA annual conference, HOSPACE. It was a topic that garnered much attention.

Sadly, I doubt many of those that recognised themselves in that talk went on to do anything about it, which is a tad worrying, as the statistics for executives and mental health are a little grim.

A recent Bupa report found that 78 per cent of business leaders had experienced poor mental health during the pandemic. The research, which was conducted by Bupa Global as part of its Executive Wellbeing Index, also found that six out of 10 executives (64%) had turned to potentially unhealthy coping strategies to help with their mental health (or lack thereof) and that 38% of business leaders had turned to alcohol and recreational or over-the-counter drugs to cope, whilst others had turned to cigarettes, vaping, excessive exercise, under or over-eating and gambling.

If you’re at the top of your company’s hierarchy, executive stress doesn’t mean that you have earned a special type of stress that those beneath you aren’t privy to, it means that you have stresses and strains specific to your role within the company.

Executive stress even has a definition in the American Psychological Association’s dictionary of psychology: the strain experienced by management personnel who are responsible for major decisions, the effectiveness of subordinates, and the success of the company as a competitive organisation.

That definition is encapsulated with idioms such as ‘it’s tough at the top’ or ‘it’s lonely at the top,’ and ‘the buck stops here.’

Think about that last phrase. Everyone else in your organisation has a line manager, someone to talk to, someone to guide them, someone that can approach and say, “hey, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed and finding my workload stressful at the moment, can we please do something about it?” But, if you’re at the top of the chain, who do you turn to, who advises you on your work/life balance and suggests strategies to help mitigate said stress? Chances are that – unless you are part of a ‘Stressed Out CEOs WhatsApp Group’ – it is no one.

And, if you’re not careful, you can pay a heavy price for the burden of leadership.

CEOs work long hours, make high-stakes, potentially costly, decisions that can affect everyone else in the company, initiate layoffs and selloffs, are closely monitored on, and criticised for the business’ performance, and deal with change and upheaval on a daily basis.

All these things have been compounded by the pandemic, which forced hospitality to close overnight and exacerbated all the factors mentioned above. How did you deal with all those decisions? How did you react to the ever-changing rules, regulations, openings, and closures that Coronavirus brought?

A 2021 study, co-authored by a Wharton professor, found that stress affected CEO aging and mortality. Unless you are careful, you age fast and die younger if you don’t have practices in place to help manage your stress.

Another study, this time commissioned by the World Health Organisation (WHO), found that long working hours killed 745,000 people a year. Meanwhile, research from the Harvard Business Review found that, on average, CEOs work 62.5 hours a week.

We all experience stress at work. Stress is the number one cause of staff absenteeism (at any level). Stress can manifest as anxiety, anger management issues and depression. You can suffer from insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and skin conditions such as psoriasis because of it. Stress can cause you to turn to unhealthy coping strategies such as junk food, alcohol, and drugs (prescription and recreational) instead of healthy coping strategies such as good food, exercise, and meditation. If left unchecked, your stress can become chronic, and it can lead to burnout syndrome – a purely occupational phenomenon, characterised by feelings of energy depletion (or exhaustion), increased mental distance from your job (or feelings of negativity and cynicism about it) and reduced professional efficacy – that was not officially recognised until 2019.

Healthy eating, exercise, and building a better work/life balance all help you to manage your stress more effectively. So too does mindfulness, rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) and hypnotherapy – two forms of psychotherapy and coaching that I provide in my practice – cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), counselling and more.

Staff wellbeing and work stress mitigation have been placed front and centre of all industries (including hospitality) because of the pandemic. That there is a mental health crisis is a given. People are turning to professionals for advice and to therapists for help. But, typically, those at the top don’t like to admit to their problems.

Part of the problem is the perceived stigma that comes with reporting a mental health issue. Common fears include damage to reputation (if it became known they were struggling) and the impact on their personal and professional reputations (if they asked for help).

However, admitting you have a problem isn’t a sign of weakness – quite the opposite in fact – it takes strength to admit that you need help. Plus, if you want a strong and robust wellbeing culture in place in your organisation, one where staff off all levels feel empowered to talk about their problems, you are going to want to lead by example. As for doing something about your stress, well that’s just plain common sense.

But, if you really don’t want your business known, therapists and coaches operate according to a policy known as ‘client confidentiality.’ So things can be kept very hush, hush. You just have to reach out to the right people.

Daniel Fryer is a mental health and wellbeing consultant and the author of The Four Thoughts That F*ck You Up (and how to fix them) out now from Penguin Random House imprint, Vermillion. He helps both individuals and businesses and specialises in anxiety disorders and work-related stress.


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