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Solitary Heights: Combating Loneliness at the Executive Leadership Level

4 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic opened the world up to new conversations surrounding mental health, primarily due to the levels of anxiety and depression reported during initial lockdowns. But a much less explored issue brought to light was the isolation and loneliness felt by those disconnected from their usual schedules and social habits.

The old adage, “It’s lonely at the top,” holds plenty of truth, according to Matt Yount, a licensed clinical social worker and owner of Affinity Counseling in Piggott.

“You’ve heard the saying that you can be in a room full of people but feel like you’re all alone. Most of the time, that’s what high-level leaders are dealing with,” Yount said. “They’re surrounded by people all the time, but what they feel like is that oftentimes they’re overly burdened with the decision-making that has to go on.”

Loneliness and isolation can affect mental health through higher levels of anxiety and depression, but there are also more tangible effects, such as developing heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and dementia. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, social connection decreases the risk of premature death. The CDC also reports that social connection can improve the “ability to recover from stress, anxiety and depression” and “improve sleep, well-being and quality of life.”

The idea of social connection comes into play in a variety of executive-level support and peer advisory groups.

 

When it comes to finding that connection within the workplace, “there’s a belief system that you’re supposed to know everything you’re supposed to know,” said Barry Goldberg, executive coach and former Vistage chair. “So the question becomes, ‘How do I make a transition into general management without abdicating my role in the larger leadership team?’”

Goldberg said the greatest CEOs don’t usually have the answers — they have the ability to facilitate the conversations necessary to reach them. These conversations and solutions are often found in groups of like-minded individuals such as peer advisory groups.

Meeting with a diverse group of business leaders from different industries can lead to problem-solving, business planning and even accountability sharing.

Natalie Ghidotti, founder and CEO of Ghidotti Communications, has held onto peer advisory groups like a lifeline during times when loneliness could have taken over. As she established her business, she realized that, while communication with her team was important, some things were better discussed with other executives.

“I’ve had my business for 16 years, and all along those 16 years, I have been in different networks or sought out mentors,” she said. “When you’re the sole owner of your company, you can’t talk about every aspect to the people on your team. You’ve got to find other people who’ve been there, done that, that you can talk to.”

Ghidotti said the networking groups she’s a part of are her “saving grace.”

Those in executive leadership positions are usually under significant stress, and without continuing to normalize the topic of mental health, this stress can be internalized.

“There’s such a pressure to get everything correct, that they [executives] oftentimes stay in their own head,” Yount said. “And because there is this stigma — this idea that they’re never supposed to display vulnerability or weakness — they suffer in silence most of the time, while trying to keep this air of confidence and capability going.”

According to a report by the Harvard Business Review, executive isolation can dampen the effectiveness of a person’s leadership, and “loneliness can contribute to rapid turnover, reduced productivity and burnout.”

As companies navigate flexible work schedules and the generational shift in the workforce, executive loneliness may be increased by a change in social norms. After all, Gen X and Gen Z likely won’t have the same view on work-life balance.

 

“A lot of the executives that I’ve worked with, they’re mostly Gen X and some Baby Boomers, and there’s definitely a disconnect for them,” Yount said. “They had a hard time understanding the value systems of different generations and what constitutes work that feels tolerable to people of younger generations versus older generations.”

Should this become a common issue, Yount suggested trying to find a shift in the overall mindset of the company’s leadership.

“It really is a shift in recognition that the people around you all have something of value to give your organization,” he said. “If you don’t see them that way, then you’re not only going to start to not get the best out of them, but you’re going to feel very isolated.”

The beauty of having a diverse work population is that pathways to new social connections are born and numerous opinions and life experiences lead to better problem-solving.

“You’re not going to be successful at your business if you can’t connect with others who have been there… and can give you some counsel,” Ghidotti said.

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