Looks can be deceiving. Despite seeming like we have it all together, it is actually fairly lonely at the top. A study by Harvard Business Review showed that 50% of Chief Executive Officers have reported feeling a sense of loneliness and 61% stated that it held them back from delivering their best work.

As the world continues to battle with Covid-19, mental health remains a big concern for many. Business leaders and high-level executives have been under intense pressure in the past six months trying to keep things afloat. Unfortunately, many of them are now either at or beyond their breaking point.

Going through executive loneliness

The problem surrounding executive loneliness has been around even before the world was hit by the pandemic. I should know because I had gone through a severe breakdown myself. Over the previous decade, I had been unexpectedly laid off from senior roles working in Indonesia and Vietnam. This incident left me feeling uncertain of my future and I could not shake the paranoia that no matter how good my performance was, I could be retrenched at any moment. As a result, I lived on edge—and drinking took the edge off.

It was three years ago when I first moved to Singapore. All alone in a foreign country, I sought solace in alcohol and the superficial social circle of my local bar. Drinking, at the time, was like a form of therapy or “reward” for me. I soon developed a drinking problem and gained around 20kg within a few months of arriving in Singapore. Not to mention, my health deteriorates as I stopped exercising. I remember the feeling of loneliness grew in me, and I subsequently felt imbalanced and disconnected. Thankfully, I found my way to a support group for problem drinkers and they managed to help me sober up and get back into exercising again. I have since been participating in triathlons.

The turning point for me was when I received the news of my close friend’s death by suicide. It made me realise the importance of addressing depression and anxiety, especially among high-powered male executives. My friend’s brother also encouraged me to speak up more on the issue to prevent such tragedies from repeating.

Overcoming executive loneliness

Even before the pandemic, business leaders and executives suffered from depression and anxiety at a far higher rate compared to the general public, according to surveys that I have done. Many of them are struggling to keep the business rolling and having to live with the guilt of laying off staff all the while worrying about their own jobs. However, there are ways to overcome executive loneliness as you can read in my article that I wrote for the Business Times.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help

The most important step is to acknowledge that you are not okay and help is needed. Many senior executives find it difficult to display their vulnerabilities as they are expected to put on a brave front rain or shine. However, in order to overcome loneliness, you will need to drop your guard and ask for help.

  • Research the problem

The next step is to identify the root of the problem. This should come off as easy for business people as this is their everyday job. Just like how you would consult a lawyer when you have legal issues, reach out to mental health experts when you are feeling lonely and depressed.

  • Stay healthy

Eat a nutritional diet, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep and watch your alcohol intake or any other damaging substances. There is no need for you to join a triathlon, like what I did, but it’s important to keep your health in check.

  • Build a healthy relationship

A strong bond can support you through your ups and downs. Maintain a healthy personal or professional relationship. If you happen to lash out due to the overwhelming pressure, be sure to apologise and make amends. Having a great support system can really lift the weight off your shoulders.

  • Give back

It’s helpful to find a cause that you believe in and do some charity work. I managed to help others out in my support group and also as a volunteer for the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) as I believe that you have to give it back in order to keep it. When you have found the right cause, use your expertise, time and resources to help out.

  • Do what you love to do

Don’t get caught up in work! Spend your free time away from work and more towards doing the things you love the most. Be it swimming, cooking or painting, as long as it keeps your mind off work, just go for it.

  • Find your joy in life

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you are not your job. It’s important to understand that the relationships you have and who you are as an individual are what represents your identity and worth. However, making a living is just as important so keep your ears open, your LinkedIn active, your professional network robust, always have a plan B and regularly update your CV.

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