Eradicating Executive Loneliness

As companies work through the Covid-19 outbreak, one man worries about the mental health impact it might have on the C-suite executives steering them.

We spoke with Nick Jonsson, Managing Director of EGN Singapore and best-selling author of Executive Loneliness book to discuss the mounting pressures of being a company executive, which is a taboo topic for many senior leaders today.

Q: What is Executive Loneliness?

It is Lonely at the top. The higher you go on the career ladder, the lonelier it gets.

Let’s look at the Senior Executive for a moment, being a Regional Director in Singapore can be a lonely job. You report to a CEO/board on another continent who does not have much understanding about Asia. Your team in the local markets are reporting to you. So you cannot share your struggle with them. In fact, your CEO does not (most of the time) even have time to care about your wellbeing. He is more concerned that you deliver on your numbers/targets.

I would also like to highlight that success is no guarantee of happiness.

Those at the top of their industries are no more protected than the rest of us from depressive symptoms or full-blown clinical depression.

Business leaders and entrepreneurs might even be more vulnerable because of the outsized stresses of their jobs and the traits that have brought them success in the first place.

Q: How widely acknowledged is Executive Loneliness, both among the senior execs themselves and their employers?

From my own experience and interactions with other executives, I think this is not a well-acknowledged problem on either side. Senior executives often find themselves isolated both in the workplace and at home, which makes them susceptible to poor mental health. But they may not even realise it until their condition becomes serious, and in the worst-case scenario, it could be deadly. In my own research for a book I have written on executive loneliness, I spoke to 56 senior executives. I found that 59% of them have experienced a bout of depression and 84% of executives find it difficult to talk about stress and depression in their company. We’ve done the same survey in 2019 (but with different members within the organisation). Results showed back then that only 30% of the anonymous executives in Singapore had been suffering from depression while 82% of the anonymous Singapore executives they talked to, found it difficult to talk about executive loneliness in their company.

The issue of workplace mental health is starting to gain traction in Singapore. Last year, The Tripartite Advisory on Mental Well-being at Workplaces led by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower pointed out the importance for employers to provide mental health support, but whether employers are really stepping up remains a question.

Q: How do you think Covid is impacting mental health?

As mentioned, our survey shows that executive loneliness has doubled during Covid-19 and now with Singapore moving back to Phase 2 and back to work from home as default mode it will negatively impact the mental health further and not only senior executives but also all of us.

Human beings are herd animals. We survive only in highly coordinated groups. Individually, we are designed to pick up social cues and coordinate and align our behavior with those around us.

We are unfortunately not doing very well being isolated.

I volunteer for two mental health organisations and they both see a spike in calls to their hotline during the pandemic. We are clearly badly affected by the Covid-19 restrictions.

Q: What’s holding people back from doing more about it?

It’s a spiral of silence, when both the executives and their employers don’t bring this up as a problem. This means the first step is to raise awareness about isolation and mental health issues among senior executives and their employers. It’s also the nature of the job that makes it difficult to speak out. For example, many of EGN’s members are expats in regional director roles, so the bosses they report to are based far away in the US or in Europe, and the last thing you’d want to tell them is that you’re not coping well. For the employers, many of them may not even realise that mental health is something they need to consider as part of employees’ welfare.

Q: Where we can go from here: What are some things that work and can work better?

Having someone to talk to about your problems is important for anyone’s mental health. One thing I firmly believe in is the importance of having a peer support group to discuss your challenges, such as what we have at EGN, where members are placed in a confidential peer group. They can speak frankly with people facing similar challenges in similar roles, which is difficult to find when you’re in a regional director role for example, where there’s nobody at your level in your company that you can speak to. To further ensure that our members feel safe to share their problems, we personalise each member’s peer group to make sure they are not placed with competitors or significant customers. It’s helpful a close network where you can look out for each other and talk about your own vulnerabilities without worrying that it might influence what your bosses or co-workers think about your ability to work.Of course, it’s also important for companies to be more supportive of their employees’ mental health and set a culture of openness and acceptance. Having policies for mental health provision and mental health days will also make it easier to speak up.

Moreover, I have proposed the 5 (five) pathways to overcoming isolation, stress, anxiety and depression in the modern business world. My book details each of these five steps:

1. Taking Stock
2. Asking for Help
3. Getting Healthy
4. Nurturing Healthy Relationships
5. Finding Your Purpose


We’d like to thank Nick for his insights and advice. You can read more about Nick on his LinkedIn page as well as his website

Images: Nick Jonsson

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