It’s lonely at the top: how senior leaders can stay resilient and look after their mental health during Covid-19

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week – which starts in the UK on Monday – certainly couldn’t be more timely. Particularly in the consumer-facing industries, where the fallout from the pandemic has been disproportionately felt, senior leaders are currently coping with immeasurable and unprecedented amounts of stress. With so many competing priorities – ranging from refinancing, through to ‘feeding the nation’, through to changed operating models – it is no wonder that many executives in our sector have told us that they are starting to experience fatigue.

Since the crisis began, CEOs and executives in consumer businesses have been forced to make business-critical decisions at pace, on a day-to-day basis, while working around the clock. Many leaders have had to make mass redundancies, which are in and of themselves hugely stressful and emotionally involved. Where businesses are still operating, or about to reopen, leaders are having to make what may turn out to be life and death decisions regarding their operations – with very little decision support or a clear road map to guide them. Choices around securing the right PPE, putting in place correct social distancing measures and identifying the ‘correct’ time to open sites have never had such serious consequences.

In their rush to lead, senior leaders may be mistaken in not prioritising their own mental health, wellbeing and resilience, leading to burnout, ‘decision fatigue’ and, more generally, failing to equip themselves for the marathon ahead. Historically, many leaders viewed a mental health programme as a ‘nice to have’ – but it is now abundantly clear that the mental wellbeing of senior leaders isn’t just an added extra: in our current climate, it’s a commercial imperative.

Many senior executives tell us that spending time outdoors helps to clear their head.

Based on our discussions with countless consumer executives over the last few months, we thought it would be useful to summarise some of the suggestions we have heard to ease the pressure during these testing times.

1) Switch off, do a ‘digital detox’

Thanks to home working and the immediacy of decision making required during Covid-19, there is now little distinction between weekends and weekdays, the working day and the evening. Establish your own – and your team’s – boundaries, and agree to respect each other’s working schedules. Google, for example, has scheduled a day’s holiday for the entire company on 22nd May, to address work-from-home-related burnout during this period.

2) Increase your circle of support

Lean on Chairs, NEDs, former managers, HRDs and friends in ways you haven’t necessarily done before. If you haven’t got a mentor or coach, now is the time to get one. If you do, increase the frequency you are seeing them. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to others in your sector or in your own country, then do it overseas by joining a peer network from outside your country. You will be surprised how much your network wants to ‘lean in’ and support you.

3) Stay connected to your team   

It can be tempting to let the relationships with your wider team slip down your list of priorities during this time. But staying in communication is not only vital to your own wellbeing, but crucial to remaining a united front during a time of crisis. Andrew Keith, President of Hong Kong-based luxury fashion retailers Lane Crawford and Joyce, told us that: “I get an enormous amount of energy from my team. Keeping up with office traditions during lockdown, such as our Friday evening ‘gin den’ which has been moved online, has allowed us all to stay connected.”

4) Find time to enjoy non-work-related activities

It is more crucial than ever that you find time to do things that are important to you outside of work, such as exercise, socialising (virtually), reading and listening to music. As one CEO told us, exercise is the only practical thing she can do to ensure she is fit and healthy to fight against Covid-19.

5) Stay in tune with your own moral compass

Your own moral compass is the best guide you have at this time. Making decisions that do not ‘sit right’ with you will only cause further long-term stress.

6) Make sure you have the right people ‘on the bus’

Draw a close team around you, who are mutually supportive and engaged. This is possibly not the time to tolerate poor performers, naysayers or disrupters. Bring others into your circle who can help you navigate through these times – and have complementary and different skill sets to those around the table.

7) Don’t try to do everything, all at once

Many leaders, particularly in smaller business, have commented to us that it is harder to delegate effectively when remote working. However, this is the time to empower other members of the leadership team and adopt a more collaborative management style. In doing so, you’ll be able to slow down, take stock and remain level-headed around the decision-making table. Kevin Moore, Chief Commercial Officer at food manufacturer Greencore, asserted this point, commenting: I have found myself working at 100 miles an hour, but sometimes I think you’ve just got to recognise that not everybody can do that and, more specifically, it might not be the best thing for the business.”

8) Try to retain some sense of normality

Many senior leaders have told us that they rely on business-as-usual processes to stay focused and avoid becoming overwhelmed by the current situation. Stuart Machin, MD, Food at M&S told us: “For me personally, I very much try to keep everything as normal. Obviously not being insensitive to the current situation, but staying disciplined, keeping everything on track, holding myself and others to account as usual and focusing on the task at hand has been really key for me. For example, we had our Christmas meeting yesterday, which went ahead as planned.”

9) Rethink your day

Don’t spend the day on back-to-back Zoom calls – they are exhausting, and far more draining than in-person meetings or a good old-fashioned phone call. It’s also worth reassessing the frequency of large meetings… do you really need two-hour Covid-19 steering group meetings every day?

10) Focus on what’s important

This is going to be a long haul. Do you have the capacity to juggle a demanding day job and a family with multiple NED or charitable commitments? Ask yourself if there is anything that can be put on ice.

By focusing on our own mental health as leaders, we will be in a better place to focus on the mental health requirements of our teams beneath us during the current crisis. Speaking on the matter, John Nolan, HRD at Jardine Matheson – which employs 500,000 people across Asia – emphasised how important prioritising the mental health of employees is during lockdown, and during the eventual emergence phase: “We identified that mental health had to be on our radar from day one. We tried to make additional services available to our people and offer them greater levels of support allowing them to talk about how they’re feeling. The reality is that people are scared. Even when it comes to bringing people back to the office, people were frightened and hearing stories of cases from the local area created a really high level of anxiety.”

Even as the weeks start to merge into one, this Mental Health Awareness week is sure to stand out. A focus on our own mental health, and the wellbeing of those we lead, has never been more important. | | @TheMBSGroup