Isolation – Are you lonely at the top?

Business leaders often lament that it is ‘lonely at the top’; with few realising just how truly isolated it can be in the boardroom. But just how pervasive is this problem, what are its potential impacts and why does it need to be addressed?

Feeling distant and isolated at the top is not just a matter of people not understanding leaders’ positions and circumstances – it can lead to depression, stress and a whole host of mental and physical health problems. In order to truly feel appreciated, leaders can often benefit from outside advice that without prejudice challenge and deal with issues relevant to business.

This could be behind the prevalence of executive coaching and peer support schemes today. In its International Business Report from earlier this year, for example, Grant Thornton found that more than a third (35 per cent) of business leaders around the world said they have used a business coach at some point.

For business leaders who are struggling to cope with the lack of support and peers at the very top, seeking the assistance of an executive coach or support group can be a wise step to take.

Why loneliness hurts

For many leaders, constant loneliness can accumulate and spiral into problems far deeper than most people believe. This was highlighted in a May 14 2014 LinkedIn article by Thomas Gelmi, in which the author referenced the suicides in quick succession of two top Swiss executives. As such, Gelmi claimed that personal support “is no longer a luxury” for business leaders, and executives would do well to forge relationships with “sparring partners” who can act as a source of mutual support.

The link between isolation in the workplace and depression is not new, and is something that needs to be given more attention if loneliness at the top is to be successfully addressed. UK organisation Depression Alliance investigated the matter in a study earlier this year, in which it surveyed more than 1,000 employees on how they coped with depression.

Depression is the biggest mental health challenge among working-age people and often leads to considerable loneliness and isolation at work

The survey found that a staggering 83 per cent of respondents said they have experience isolation or loneliness at work due to factors such as depression and stress. However, they may not be coping with it adequately – less than half of those who felt isolated said they confided in a colleague about the situation.

Those feeling depressed at work may certainly find it beneficial to have an ear that can listen to them, as 71 per cent of respondents who did confide in a peer said it helped.

Emer O’Neill, chief executive of Depression Alliance, said finding support is key for depressed and isolated workers.

“Depression is the biggest mental health challenge among working-age people and often leads to considerable loneliness and isolation at work,” she said.

“However, many companies aren’t properly equipped to manage employees who suffer from depression so providing support to these individuals in the workplace is essential.”

Such is the impact of isolation in the workplace that a study from the University of British Columbia suggested it is more harmful than bullying or harassment, and can lead to dissatisfaction and health issues.

“Ostracism actually leads people to feel more helpless, like they’re not worthy of any attention at all,” noted Professor Sandra Robinson, co-author of the study.

Given the potential harm that isolation and depression can bring, it’s essential that business leaders know what steps to take to overcome the problem.

What leaders want

So what should leaders be doing to reduce the chances of becoming lonely at the top? According to the 2013 Executive Coaching Survey led by Stanford University, while the vast majority of CEOs today want advice and support, not many are actually getting it.

Even the best-of-the-best CEOs have their blind spots and can dramatically improve their performance with an outside perspective weighing in.

The study found that nearly two-thirds of business leaders do not receive external leadership advice or coaching. However, practically all respondents admitted they would be “receptive to making changes based on feedback”.

“Given how vitally important it is for the CEO to be getting the best possible counsel, independent of their board, in order to maintain the health of the corporation, it’s concerning that so many of them are ‘going it alone,'” explained Stephen Miles, CEO of The Miles Group, which also played a role in conducting the survey.

“Even the best-of-the-best CEOs have their blind spots and can dramatically improve their performance with an outside perspective weighing in.”

But does having an external leadership coach really generate results? Apparently so, according to the ‘Lonely at the Top: The Importance of Mentoring for Chairmen, CEOs and the C-suite‘ study by IMD and CMi. In the study, the two organisations surveyed a range of business leaders across the UK and Europe and found that 82 per cent reported that receiving mentoring “led to improved leadership behaviours and ability to manage key relationships”.

Mentoring was also helping in other business areas, such as improved strategic performance (71 per cent) and better decision making (69 per cent).

Even in an increasingly time-pressured business environment, CEOs need not go at it alone. By seeking assistance from outside coaches, mentors and support groups of like-minded leaders, they can stay healthy, develop as a leader and drive their organisation to success.