Who cares if leaders feel lonely?

We talk a lot about how leaders need to make sure everyone in their team is happy and comfortable. It’s important to create a culture that promotes well-being and performance, but while leaders take care of the people they lead, who is taking care of them? Ollie Phillips, Founder of Optimist Performance, pens some thoughts on loneliness amongst leaders, and how to address it.

According to studies, half of CEOs report feeling lonely, and of these, 61% report that feeling lonely has an impact on their performance. It also impacts their well-being and mental health. This year's theme for Mental Health Awareness Week is loneliness, so let’s explore how lonely it can be at the top.

Who invited the boss?

Many leaders are making mental health and well-being a priority for their employees, which is obviously a great thing. Creating a culture of caring for employees is essential, and many companies are investing resources to promote team building activities, building great offices to incentivise collaboration and teamwork, and other perks and benefits in order to create a sense of belonging for people in their teams. 

However, while leaders devote time to creating a healthy and positive environment for their people, they do not always reap the benefits. Many leaders are now reporting a sense of loneliness, especially on occasions such as team lunches and not being invited.

Even if you are the lucky one invited to lunch, how authentic and comfortable really is the situation?

An executive stated: “They’re stressed about being with the boss, and that generates a certain distance. I think for them, it’s important to have a space to be relaxed, and when the boss is present, they’re not relaxed.”

Even if you build a great relationship with everyone on your team based on trust and authenticity, the reality is that there will always be a difference since you are the one who has to make the tough decisions. This is another reason why leaders report feeling lonely. They admit that being close to subordinates can result in making these decisions even harder. 

Don’t go it alone

Admitting to stress, mental health issues or even feeling lonely is not easy for anyone, but it becomes even more challenging when you are the person that everyone looks up to. 

Cultivating a culture of trust and authenticity requires being honest and vulnerable with others. However, there are still many challenges and circumstances that a leader cannot communicate to others, whether because of confidentiality issues or because they do not want to alarm and bring others down.

It's also crucial to remember that leaders are looked up to not only by their teams but also by their boards of directors or investors, who seek answers.

“The Board usually thinks that I should know everything and anything about the organisation and that’s impossible. Sometimes I get frustrated with what they say. With whom can I share this with? I cannot say this to anyone, because this is about my relationship with my superiors, and also, I cannot share organisational issues. I have to deal with it on my own," mentioned another executive in the study. 

In addition, leaders in large and medium organisations are not the only ones who feel lonely; entrepreneurs and founders must also be considered.

Starting your own business is exciting, but it also presents many challenges. We know that building a successful business can be daunting at times. It takes time and effort, and most of the time (at least at the beginning), you don’t have the support of a team around you. It also makes it even more difficult to disconnect, as you’re living and breathing the business 24/7.  

Fortunately, most entrepreneurs have a greater sense of purpose, an invaluable strength to help fight loneliness. 

Having a purpose can help you feel less lonely 

Having a purpose has been shown to reduce stress and improve mental health. Additionally, studies show that helping others can help reduce loneliness and isolation and enhance our sense of purpose. So why not take advantage of the very thing that makes you feel lonely and use it to build connections and purpose?

"In the face of adversity, people with a stronger sense of purpose in life tend to be more resilient because they have a clear sense of goals that motivate actions that are aligned with personal values," said Yoona Kang, PhD, lead author and a Research Director of the Communication Neuroscience Lab.

Whether you are an entrepreneur or a senior leader in a big organisation, you could potentially use your experience and knowledge to help others by becoming a lecturer, a teacher or a mentor. This allows you not only to benefit from helping others but also to create more meaningful and deeper connections that will in turn help alleviate your feeling of loneliness too. 

“As a teacher or mentor, I can share the lessons that I have learned with no negative consequences.”

Many aspiring leaders seek mentors who can answer their questions and whom they may look up to. Furthermore, it doesn’t necessarily mean investing a great deal of time; the important thing is to find a structure that benefits both of you. 

Why do leaders feel lonely even while surrounded by people?

We can feel lonely while surrounded by people and be absolutely content by ourselves. The difference is in the connections, so even though leaders spend a lot of time surrounded by people at dinners, social gatherings, and so on, that doesn't guarantee the interactions are significant enough to produce a sense of connection, hence exacerbating loneliness. This is where developing stronger bonds with your mentees can be advantageous, but time management is also necessary.

Leaders spend most of their working week in meetings, and we must also factor in the amount of work-related social duties they have to fulfil. All of this takes up the majority of their free time, which isn't spent with individuals who could help them feel less lonely and disconnected.

Leaders of large corporations, entrepreneurs, and founders also work longer hours, which means they are devoting time away from their personal lives to work. As a result, their work-life balance, mental health, and stress are all affected.

So, while the top job may seem great from the outside and it’s a goal for many people, it’s important to consider that it comes with many sacrifices too. That said, you don’t want to discourage people from aiming high; the reminder here is to take time to reflect on the price of success and how best to protect your mental health and well-being at the top. 

The Optimist view…

While it may appear that feeling lonely is an inevitable component of the top job, it doesn’t have to be. Fortunately, there are a variety of resources available to help leaders access the support and connections they need to flourish.

Whether you're a big company executive, an entrepreneur or a start-up founder, there are plenty of networking groups and events where you can meet individuals in similar situations.

You can also get help from others who have been in your shoes. We've already discussed how being a mentor can be beneficial, but you can also find a mentor for yourself - someone who has “been there, done that” and who can provide a sympathetic and supportive ear. 

Last but not least, you can hire a coach to act as a sounding board and confidant. Having a coach is beneficial not only because you have someone with whom you can share your thoughts, issues, and concerns but also because it allows you to devote a specific amount of time to yourself.