Workers turn to them for support, clients rely on them for answers, companies lean on them in times of crisis.
Yet, as the coronavirus pandemic stretches inexorably on, the never-ending demands on business leaders are pushing some to the brink of burnout, some experts have warned.
“Leaders are under tremendous strain,” says Paula Allen, global leader and senior vice-president of research and total well-being at LifeWorks Inc. “When the pandemic first started, we saw the adrenalin kick in, decisions were made fast and work got done. But it’s been relentless. Leaders are exhausted.”
Almost two years, five waves and multiple variants into the pandemic . . . many company leaders have reported an increase in exhaustion and mental-health concerns. Supervisors, low-level managers, small business owners and senior executives are grappling with increasing demands and surging work volumes. Many are putting in extra hours to keep things running, while also providing support and encouragement to workers.
“Business leaders are supposed to be cheerleaders,” says Mike Johnston, president and chief executive officer of Redspace, a Halifax-based software company. “But we’ve been trying to hustle and pivot and get through this for so long now, I’m out of gas.”
For some managers, the inability to offer more certainty and support to workers is what keeps them up at night. “When you’re the leader of a group of people you want to have all the answers,” says Barry Taylor, director of operations for The Ballroom, a large entertainment venue in downtown Toronto. “But you don’t and you just feel helpless and burnt out.”
Late-stage pandemic fatigue is taking a toll on many managers, with some veering towards burnout, experts have noted, including symptoms such as emotional exhaustion, detachment, loss of motivation and reduced efficiency — all of which can have a ripple effect throughout an entire workplace.
“It’s exhausted leaders leading exhausted teams,” says Jennifer Moss, a Waterloo, Ont.-based workplace consultant and author of The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It. “Managers are trying to be stoic and demonstrate strength and certainty for their employees when many don’t feel that themselves.”
Pandemic burnout isn’t unique to leaders, but she says there are particular stressors facing those in charge. “It can be more isolating at the top. Senior leaders and managers can sometimes feel very alone.”
There’s also a perception that because people in management positions “earn the big bucks,” they should be prepared to cope with the additional responsibility and stress, she says. “We sometimes forget there’s a human behind that role and regardless of how much they’re being paid, how much they earn, it doesn’t fix the grief and the pain and the stress that they’re dealing with,” Moss adds.
The perception that managers should demonstrate unwavering leadership and steadfast support of their workers can increase fears of seeking help, experts have said. “There’s a definite stigma,” says Chantal Hervieux, associate professor of strategy at Saint Mary’s University’s school of business and director of the school’s master of business administration program and centre for leadership excellence. “There’s less acceptance for leaders to talk about mental-health issues. Leaders are expected to be in control, have the answers and be supportive of their team members.”
Despite the near constant uncertainty and upheaval of the pandemic, those expectations have remained the same or increased, Hervieux says. “Canadian business leaders are working hard to keep things going but some are suffering. They’re paying a mental-health price and we need to talk about it.”
A survey by LifeWorks and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd., released last summer, found a majority (82 per cent) of senior leaders reported feeling exhausted. The poll found the top two stressors were increased work volume compared to pre-pandemic levels and the desire to provide adequate support for the well-being of staff. More than half of those polled said they were considering leaving their roles.
“I’ve been chatting with other CEOs and there seems to be a shift,” says Johnston. “There’s a number of founders looking to get out, to exit. The fun of the chase isn’t balanced against the stress of it.”