'This issue has really become a business issue, as opposed to a soft HR thing'
Back in 2021, a Canadian report brought to light the dire conditions faced by senior leaders, finding that 82 per cent were suffering from exhaustion.
“It clearly showed a lot of cracks as it related to the wellbeing in mental health because leaders reported exhaustion, which was indicative of burnout, and clearly that raised concerns,” says Zabeen Hirji, executive advisor for the future of work at Deloitte in Toronto.
“The good news is that the leaders in many organizations, and even boards, paid attention and this issue has really become a business issue, as opposed to a soft HR thing.”
The report also showed that half (50 per cent) of leaders expressed a desire to resign, retire, take a leave of absence or even switch to a part-time role.
“The next question was: What’s the next step? How do we address the things that are unique to leaders, as well as address the stigma that surrounds what got us in place that we are right now?” says Paula Allen, global leader and SVP of research and total wellbeing at LifeWorks in Toronto.
“This has been a bit of a blind spot and we sometimes need that step-by-step guidance to get out of the pattern that has been developing for decades.”
‘Playbook for action’
In response, a new guide has been created to provide organizations with a way to support these valuable members of the team. Dubbed a “playbook for action,” Well-being and resilience in senior leaders is published by Deloitte Canada and LifeWorks and came out of interviews with about 1,200 senior leaders from 11 private and public sector organizations.
It highlights four key areas for organizations to address: focus on peer relationships, reduce mental health stigmas, provide better internal support and rethink work.
“The peer environment was a big thing, where people felt that they had the support of their peers, as opposed to an environment where the culture is to compete with your peers, hoard information and look for other’s weaknesses in order to get ahead,” says Allen.
By having frank and regular conversations with colleagues, both workloads and mental health outcomes could be improved, says Hirji.
“What if peers came together more to actually talk about… ‘The things that you’re doing, I’m doing, he’s doing, she’s doing’ and look for opportunities to synergize: Can we bring projects together? We all want to own our own thing; we get very territorial and maybe by actually combining certain things, we can make it better for the customer because we can remove unnecessary work from the system and free people up.”
By adopting these strategies, organizations can truly help leaders to better cope, says Allen, which is something they often struggle with due to their makeup.
“When leaders are under stress, the high performers in particular, they don’t retreat. We have that image of somebody who stays in bed, who can’t get out — that’s not really how high performers work. Very often, they become more driven, more perfectionistic, the skills that made them successful go into overdrive as a way to deal with not feeling as strong as they once did.
Those sorts of behaviours often can be disruptive to the workplace, even if they’re not intended to be.”
For HR professionals and senior leaders, it’s about a new way of thinking about mental health can, says Hirji.
“One CHRO said to me: ‘Maybe self-care should be a leadership behaviour that we expect of our leaders,’ which empowers them then to actually do it. When you say that’s important, they say, ‘I’m going to do it because that’s what makes a good leader in our organization.’”
The burden of overwork
Sixty-eight per cent of leaders reported their workload has increased since the pandemic and this was the top stressor.
As to how to address this major issue, a lot of it comes down to the corporate culture, says Hirji.
“Many organizations have this culture of facetime. I know executives who will say to me: ‘I leave my jacket behind my chair when I leave my desk [to make it look] like I’m still there, and I’ve just popped out, in case the boss walked by,’ because that’s kind of culture that’s there.”
This culture of overwork has also been exacerbated in recent years, according to Allen, and not all of it has to do with the pandemic.
“The complexity of decisions, the amount of pieces of information that need to be considered when you’re starting a new business; you have to think about the business of the customer the way you always have but you also have to think about cybersecurity and ESG and the levels of complexity, and every role has really skyrocketed,” she says.
With this new complexity, “we haven’t adjusted how we work so now’s the time to take a pause and say, ‘Are we really setting people up for success? Do we want to make sure that there are more supports? Do we want to make a take a pause and prioritize what’s important?’”
To fix this seemingly insurmountable problem, the playbook advises organizations to do such things as promoting wellbeing, and training leaders on new tech tools to better manage workloads.
Many employers are not providing many mental health supports to their workers, finds a survey.
But senior leaders also need to be encouraged to better prioritize lengthy to-do lists, says Hirji.
“[It’s about people who] say, ‘I’m going to take this off the list, but you’re going to have to adjust my performance goals,’ and really start to see people like that as heroes and as contributors as opposed to slackers.”
It’s also important to take advantage of organizational knowledge and find out what front-line employees know, she says.
“Let’s involve employees: they have so many ideas of how to make things better, and I’m still astounded by how many organizations don’t fully tap into that and even tapping into their knowledge to break down hierarchies.”