Being at the top is lonely: The workplace isolation people don’t talk about.

More people than we ever realise are suffering from work-related emotional challenges. Especially for those at the very top. To tackle the problems of isolation and depression in the workplace, we will need greater awareness and understanding.

People do not like to admit that they are facing anxiety, depression, or just loneliness. Not even to their loved ones, close friends, and certainly not to their colleagues, let alone the team members who report to them at work. EGN Singapore estimates that 30 per cent of executives in Singapore are, or were, clinically depressed. However, 82 per cent find it difficult to talk about loneliness.

The social stigma associated with the condition is one of the one major barriers, said Nick Jonsson, the managing director of EGN Singapore. Many people do not want to be perceived as having such a problem, and to protect themselves, they frequently refrain from speaking up even when offered a “safe” environment for doing so.

In a statement to People Matters, he said that it is a topic no one wants to touch upon or talk about. But he encourages that we should and that it is OK to talk about work-related emotional challenges.

Jonsson himself almost became a part of the WHO’s statistics in 2018, when a prolonged bout of depression caused him to neglect his own health to the point of developing serious medical complications. He launched an advocacy campaign to raise awareness of the condition after recovering from his depression. With the priority focused on senior executives who, he believes, are significantly more prone to mental health issues because the nature of their job can leave them profoundly isolated.

A solitary, high-pressure existence

On the condition of anonymity, a number of senior executives based in Singapore shared their experiences with loneliness and depression to People Matters. Common threads ran through their stories: internal fears of appearing weak or reliant on others, massive external pressures to perform, doubts to their self-worth when situations did not go as expected. These are people in the prime of their lives and careers, with families and high-ranking jobs, who were relocated to take up leadership positions. On the surface, they looked very successful. Inside, however, not everything is going as well.

A big part of the problem is that the characteristics that make someone professionally successful can also make them more reluctant to acknowledge personal challenges or to seek help even when they do.

Instead, said Jonsson, they are more likely to reject any help they were offered.

Maria Micha, a psychotherapist who runs a counselling centre in Singapore said she has not come across a corporate high-end manager who is not an insecure overachiever. She described such situations as a vicious cycle: the pressure to succeed forces them into a spiral of anxiety and depression, which drives them to seek more indicators of success, which in turn creates still more pressure to succeed. Most of the time, they lacked the self-awareness to realise what is happening.

According to Jonsson, many at the top don’t have the time to develop self-awareness—their busy work schedule, the image they have to uphold, and the constant shift of jobs. These factors caused them to never stop and look at what is happening to them.

There are ways to open up and find some relief

Opening up is the only real way to break the vicious cycle: to speak to someone about their difficulties and seek treatment, which could make an impact on their quality of life. It could even save their lives in some cases, Jonsson points out; depression is one of the top 10 causes of early death.

There are ways to find a human connection without feeling that they have made themselves vulnerable even for those who most firmly deny that they are in difficulty. Some senior executives shared how they turned to co-working spaces to find a sense of community: one CEO shared his own experience that many people in the co-working space are in a similar position, they are experiencing many of the same feelings, concerns, and challenges as the sole representative of their company. To them, being able to share their thoughts with like-minded people without being judged as they foster relationships and support each other is a huge blessing.

Others participated in peer groups and industry networking sessions; the international chamber of commerce has been approached by expats alike as they search for a connection with their home. Some turned to close friends and realised in the process that one or more of those friends were going through similar issues. And a few made the decision to get support and comfort from their spouses: Jonsson said this is possibly the easiest way for someone to open up when their spouse approaches them first and offers them understanding.

He recounted that he knows many cases where a relationship or even a life has been saved because of the persistence of the wife.

And there are other ways: oddly enough, he added, professional assistance for other problems can sometimes open a path to tackling one’s emotional challenges. If, for example, someone is going through treatment for alcoholism, the discipline and therapy involved can help make the person more open to seeking help for other difficulties through awareness and understanding.

Employers can help, too

A little understanding from the employers is often all they need; there is more to evaluating a person than financial results and there needs to be an acknowledgement that the high-flyer running the business needs to be treated like a human. The simplest actions an employer takes could make is through mentoring and counselling resources that are easily and visibly available, or as complex as creating a culture that acknowledges emotional challenges and helps employees work through them.

Lee Quane, the regional director of global mobility firm ECA international observed when companies base evaluations on concrete metrics such as balance sheet, P&L, or headcount, those are good objective indicators of a person’s performance, but not of the person’s emotional situation. There needs to be more support in terms of counselling, he said, especially during a trying period like this pandemic.

Some senior executives expressed a desire for greater access to mentorship and counselling, or for a platform where they can discuss such issues in a positive and healthy manner. Even if that meant having a difficult conversation, they simply wanted people to be upfront and honest with them. One said: An occasional check-in that focuses on how their family is doing, rather than what ultimately becomes a sales-pipeline update.

Sadly, according to one senior executive shared with People Matters, not all companies are mature enough to understand or handle the emotional difficulties of their employees. But those who can manage it are well on the way to creating a healthier, more positive organisational culture that is able to support employees and address issues more transparently. “That’s why I began with the C-suite,” Jonsson said in his campaign, which targets primarily senior executives. “When you can get this in place at the top, it trickles down to the rest of the company. It helps make things better for everyone else.”