Leadership & mental health: why leaders need to look after themselves during the Covid crisis

Leadership & mental health: why leaders need to look after themselves during the Covid crisis

Gemma Sole Posted on October 21, 2020 in Blog

In this guest blog, Gemma Sole, the director of School for CEOs, shares some findings from recent research into the psychological impact of COVID-19 on business leaders


In times of crisis we look towards our leaders.

We need reassurance. We need certainty. We want control.

At the beginning of lockdown, School for CEOs invited our Faculty of over 100 CEOs and Non-Executive leaders to share their insights on leadership through a crisis.

Above all, the prevailing piece of advice was the one thing that leaders forget in the melee – to look after themselves. Your performance as a leader will be severely hampered if you are not physically and emotionally fit to take on the challenge.

School for CEOs were concerned about the mental health of senior leaders in business; that they may have struggled to find the space and time to ‘Manage Inwards’ and that they were putting their organisation’s needs ahead of their own, making a personal sacrifice that inevitably would lead to a lose-lose situation.

To understand this better and to help organisations support their leaders, School for CEOs partnered with social psychologist, Dr Mioara Cristea, to understand the psychological impact of lockdown on senior leaders.

Their first finding validated these concerns: 42% senior leaders experienced high levels of burnout during lockdown.

​This figure is extremely concerning, given the duty of care that business leaders hold both for the success of the business and the safety of their workforce.

However, more concerning was the inequity experienced by leaders of different ages and gender. Despite young people generally being healthier and less likely to experience the worst symptoms of Covid-19, 24-38 year olds were twice as likely to experience burnout than over 50s.

The research also put the spotlight over the role of women at home and it was surprising to learn that 25% of female leaders that lived with children took full home-schooling responsibility. So 1 in 4 women running businesses that have kids at school are simultaneously adopting the role of full time tutor while leading a business through a pandemic. There is a huge body of research that highlights the disproportionate ratio of ‘unpaid work’ that women do. Clearly there’s still much progress to be made to level the playing field.

What helped these leaders cope?

Leaders drew on a number of trusted advisors to help them lead through lockdown, although it was perhaps surprising to see that they favoured personal connections (friends, family, partners) over their colleagues.

After personal connections, leaders were leaning on their managers for support, with executives leaning on the CEO and the CEO leaning on the Board and their HR Director, who in most cases has been a close ally throughout the pandemic.

Leaders also threw themselves into the online social activities and online learning opportunities provided by their organisations. This gave them an opportunity to ‘be one of the gang’ and build trust among their wider workforce, and the learning opportunities helped reassure them and provide some external validation that they were making well informed decisions.

Today, leaders have to be more agile and adaptable than ever before. While this research presents some concerning statistics around the mental health of business leaders, it also demonstrates their desire to engage and to be open which will continue to reassure and provide certainty (where possible) to their workforce, suppliers and customers.

It is critical that these leaders do not forget about their own needs, and that they prioritise their physical, mental and emotional fitness in order to withstand the pressures of leadership in a crisis unlike any other.

To read the full report, visit: https://www.schoolforceos.com/thought-leadership/the-psychological-impact-of-covid-19

If your organisation or leaders need help with wellbeing in the workplace, get in touch – we have a number of speakers who specialise in giving online talks on this topic such as former Scotland rugby captain John Barclay, leadership expert Lauren Currie and executive coach Alister Gray

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To learn more about how we can help your organisation in making a real difference to workplace mental health, please get in touch.

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