The result of not being able to open up to anyone, top executives can suffer from depression and loneliness. Psychologists said it is alright for them to open up and talk about their problems.
Exactly two years ago, I hit rock bottom.
I had just reached the summit and landed a job as a managing director of EGN Singapore in January 2018.
To all appearances, I seemed to be enjoying the trappings of a successful C-suite executive but I was actually struggling with a vague sense of numbness inside and was increasingly isolated from my colleagues. I kept on trying to keep my mental condition a secret because I fear being perceived as a “weak leader”.
I was away from my family—parents and a young son who live in Sweden which was why I sought solace in alcohol and ended up putting on 20kg in a span of three months. My left foot swelled to twice its size and doctors were initially baffled.
It was later that I discovered that the swelling was psychosomatic—triggered by my rapidly deteriorating mental condition.
I understand that the saying ‘It’s lonely at the top’ is an old cliche but it explains my situation as a leader of an organisation so well. Not to mention that it is so difficult to communicate with what is really going on because if you are, say, a regional director based in Singapore, you might be reporting to a CEO in the US or Europe.
You probably even have teams based all over Southeast Asia and there is no way for you to tell them about your problems because you are supposed to be the ‘strong one’ who drives the team.
In a way, there is no one who you can talk to openly about what is ailing you. You can’t even take up the conversation with your friends and family as they may not understand the unique challenges that you are facing. This can cause you to feel frustrated and further isolate your feelings.
I believe that the problem is likely worse for men because they are not encouraged to showcase their emotions.
Last year around January, I decided to delve deeper into the subject after an interview with Singapore Press Holdings’ radio station Money FM 89.3. In that interview, I was asked to talk about belonging to a network of peers at EGN Singapore.
It was a sensitive topic for me and I remember explaining at great lengths how difficult it is for senior executives based in Singapore as they have to manage the Asia-Pacific region with its different cultures, markets and legislation.
EGN is a business networking platform for leaders and specialists with a branch of the global group set up in 1992. There are a total of 13,500 members representing more than 8,000 companies.
At the time, I felt like a fraud. Although my work was to create business peer networks, I, myself, could not confide in a single peer in my office in Singapore.
My close friend, Mr Simon Greaves, a British executive who was based in Singapore committed suicide a few months later, after hiking to the base camp near Mount Everest. He was only 50 years old at the time.
Everyone remembered him as an outgoing person with a fun and loving personality. Nobody suspected that he was suffering in silence.
According to Dr Geraldine Tan, principal psychologist and director of the Therapy Room, this problem is not atypical as she has seen many C-suite professionals at her Orchard Road clinic. She said executive loneliness leads to varying degrees of depression which reveals itself differently.
“There is functioning depression and there is also ‘smiling’ depression. In functioning depression, a patient is able to carry out his work but may become quieter and exhibit a low mood level constantly which can last for months.
“In a smiling depression, people work hard to hide their pain. Often, you may mistake them for leading a normal life until they open up to you,” she continued.
Dr Tan has more than two decades of experience in the field and she said such patients will reveal their pain and begin to emote only within the confines of a doctor’s consulting room.
Her patients come to her when the pain is too painful for them to bear. It is a huge release for them to be able to confide or even cry about the problems they are experiencing and this process can help save their lives.
No one talks about it
After my friend’s untimely death, I embarked on a journey to open up about my mental health issues. I began to post on social media, planned to write a book and did surveys on my office colleagues.
I polled all EGN Singapore members on the subject of executive loneliness last year in September and out of 56 anonymous respondents, 30% said they had suffered work-related depression.
As to my question on whether or not they found it easy to talk about the subject, 82% of them answered “not easy” and “no”.
I wrote my first book, Executive Loneliness: The Workplace Isolation That People Do Not Talk About, with the findings that I have and the book is set to be released later this year. I think it will be timely as executives are already grappling with the economic fallout due to COVID-19.
An American expatriate, David Litteken who is also a senior vice-president, Asia-Pacific, of BI Worldwide in Singapore, a global agency focused on workforce recognition programmes and sales loyalty events employing more than 1,800 staff worldwide is also someone who is battling this sense of isolation.
Mr Litteken, 53, who has been living here for three years, is responsible for business across the Asia-Pacific including offices in Shanghai, Singapore, Melbourne and Sydney. From 2012 until 2017, he remembers feeling alone in Shanghai, a city of 25 million people.
He recalled not knowing a single person—not his leaders and none of his staff. He left an environment where he was well-grounded and had to figure things out by himself.
He did join a few chambers of commerce and a dining club for executives named Beefsteak & Burgundy in order to build his network of expatriates as well as local Chinese friends. According to him, that helped give him the confidence to further reach out.
Lonely at the top
The regional director of operations and supply chain for DSM Nutritional Products in Singapore, Farzana Shubarna is another leader who fell into the same pit of isolation and depression at the top.
Ms Farzana, 46, runs the end-to-end order fulfilment activity for a billion-dollar business. The Asian-American single mom of two began her journey in operations and supply chain management more than 20 years ago, back when the respective field was male-dominated.
For years, she worked without having a sense of belonging. She had to tackle every challenge that came her way—be it from people, machinery or finance—on her own. She knew at the time that she had to prove herself in order to establish credibility, gain respect and have her peers take her seriously which is why she did not have the time or option to worry about how lonely she was feeling or how strongly she needed to connect and collaborate.
20 years later now, she still struggles with feeling alone at the top. As the first female director of manufacturing for L’Oreal in the United States and the first female regional director of operations in DSM, the loneliness has affected her personal and family life.
She could not speak about her struggles and challenges with anyone at work to validate her capabilities and credibility. Even at home, she tried not to bring home her work burden and it became a heavy weight on her mind and heart, to the point where she accepted it as a growing pain, a rite of passage.
Three years ago, she overcame her feelings of depression and isolation when she left the US and came to Singapore after receiving the role to lead her company’s Asia operations. She actively reached out to connect and build a network of friends in Singapore while tapping into yoga, meditation and Deepak Chopra. From there, she learnt to accept that she does not have to be perfect and her shortcomings are what made her human.
Doing it with others
Maria Micha, a psychologist who identifies symptoms and root causes of mental disorders at Orchard Road clinic said that developing peer networks is healthy for those at the top who are prone to isolation due to very long stressful hours and not having the time to confide their struggles to their loved ones.
According to Dr Micha, humans are social beings who have been living in groups since the beginning of time. That is how human survived, evolved and learnt about the world and their changing bodies, brains and environment.
She added, why one experiences loneliness at the top is because when you are at the top, you are supposed to have all the answers and supposed to know everything. It almost seems like you are supposed to be the sovereign, god-like figure that can deal with everything.
She expresses that even though it is important for leaders to be transparent, they too need help and do not have all the answers. In other words, being vulnerable does not mean being weak and to be vulnerable is to allow people to see that he or she has their own challenges, and he or she is being productive about resolving the negative emotions.
She also suggested talking to a business coach, a mental health counsellor, a mentor or one’s spouse because leaders need to show that having mental and emotional challenges is a part of human existence—it is a part of life.
Five warning signs of executive loneliness
Just like physical illnesses, mental health can be just as dangerous and they are not always easy to detect. Depression can affect anyone regardless of their age or job seniority and it manifests in different ways. Here are the five signs that you should keep a watchful eye on:
Intense feelings of anxiety and insecurity
Executives may harbour suspicions such as whether or not their employer will fire them at any moment or should they turn down opportunities despite being qualified because they feel as if they are not capable enough.
Distrust of colleagues
Executives who are dealing with stress may be imagining colleagues gossiping about them behind their backs and worry about getting back-stabbed.
Suddenly withdrawing from social interaction is definitely a red flag. When individuals can no longer reach out to friends and family as often as they used to, they can experience feelings of isolation and self-doubt.
Addiction and dependence on substances
Corporate leaders can drink or smoke to socialise and relax but the overuse of such substances can result in poor health and bad sleep quality. What started as a tool to cope with stress may lead you to a more vicious circle of stress.
Recurring thoughts about death or suicide
A sense of impending doom can also push people to give away their prized possessions and make end-of-life plans while they are still healthy. When the situation has deteriorated until this stage, immediate psychiatric help is recommended.
*Disclaimer: It is advisable to consult a qualified medical professional for any psychological condition that may be a cause for concern.