What has the pandemic taught us about mental health and burnout in leadership teams?

26/04/2021
Read Time: 5 Min

As part of a series of workshops ECI is running for HR and People Leaders within its portfolio, The School of CEOs was welcomed to discuss managing mental health during lockdown and beyond, and what they learned from a recent study of over 700 senior executives discussing mental health and effective coping strategies. This is the third workshop in the series, following recent discussions on How the Role of HR Leadership has Changed in Today’s Climate, and Tips on how to Effectively Recruit & Onboard Remotely.

Zoom meetings pandemic


What has the pandemic taught us about mental health and burnout? 

The Covid-19 pandemic thrust individuals, families and professionals into an entirely different way of living, at just a moment’s notice. The measures required to curb the spread of the virus have had hidden costs, including a significant toll on our mental health. 

Burnout is something a lot of people may have experienced – a physical and emotional state where individuals lose idealism, energy and purpose. This may play out in disengagement with work and in exhaustion. The survey by The School of CEOs showed that 42% of senior leaders are considered to be at a high risk of burnout, highlighting the importance of tackling this head-on.


Is it affecting everyone equally?

No, whilst there is little doubt that everyone has been affected by the pandemic in some way, the risk of burnout is not equal among everyone surveyed. For example:

  • Female leaders are 7% more likely to be at a higher risk of burnout, with women surveyed much more likely to be taking responsibility for home-schooling on top of work commitments.
  • Those living alone or with friends expressed slightly higher levels of overall burnout, disengagement with work, and exhaustion compared to those living with family (e.g., partner, children, parents).
  • Those between 24-38 were much more likely to experience exhaustion, disengagement and burnout that those in older brackets. Across all ages exhaustion was the most commonly experienced emotion. 
Risk of burnout and exhausting pandemic by age
  • 22% of CEOs reported a high level of burnout but they were at a significantly lower risk of burnout than their executive teams (34% high), and their direct reports (43% high).   


How can you identify burnout in your business? 

Whilst restrictions may be lifting, the HR leaders in the workshop agreed that it feels like we are at the middle of the journey rather than the end. Even if all goes smoothly with the lockdown roadmap, there are a lot of changes coming, and experience of burnout may well accelerate before things get better.

So, what can you do to identify and support risk of burnout in your business? 

  • At an aggregate level, pulse surveys can help you to get quick reactions to changing government of company policy and understand the general trend. Some portfolio companies also did non-anonymous surveys, with individuals rating their own wellbeing and being supported as necessary. 
  • Understand people’s barriers and situations. As discussed, burnout isn’t affecting everyone equally, but the more you can understand people’s situation and difficulties, and have honest conversations about mental health, the more you can pre-empt support and flexibility.


How can you help people in your business (and yourself!)

The School for CEOs identified the three most popular coping strategies out of the 14 strategies identified by Public Health England at the start of lockdown as:

  • Connecting with others
  • Getting outside
  • Physical wellbeing     

Think about how you can incorporate these into your business, with some examples shared including:

Connections: 

  • Line manager training. The surveys showed a lot of people leaned on their line manager during this time, so why not set up a people leader forum making sure that that ‘first-go-to’ person has the training needed to support their team with mental health and support. 
Support for CEOs during lockdown
  • Networks outside your business. Lots of businesses have been very good at creating social hubs internally, but sometimes you actually need to talk to people in your role who you don’t work with. It is interesting that 72% of CEOs used colleague networks during the lockdown. Encourage individuals, whether they are CMOs or HR Directors, to reach out to a network, as understanding how other people are coping and reacting to the ongoing changes, can help individuals take more control, and give some comfort that they’re not alone.
Training and e-learning pandemic
  • Therapy and counselling. If your team has a mental health support through your employee assistance programme (EAP) then make sure that they’re all aware of the support on offer and encourage uptake. Despite significant progress being made in the last year in people opening up about the professional support they’ve used and how it’s been helpful, some people may still be reluctant to reach out and ask questions about accessing support. Over communicate what’s on offer, and make sure senior leaders are being vocal about using it to set an example and show there is no stigma.


Taking breaks:  

  • Reducing reliance on Teams/Zoom. No one even needs to reference Zoom fatigue by this point, and there is something to be said for encouraging the old-fashioned phone calls. Not only does this reduce the need for a screen, it also means people can jump on calls outside or on a walk. 
  • Encourage screen free time. Whether this is gifting staff a screen free day or perhaps just a few hours in the day, it is worth asking your staff whether they feel that they can get outside during the day and if not, why not?
  • Change your meeting times. One company in the workshop had mandated that meeting lengths should be 20 minutes or 40 minutes, as this way it created a natural break between meetings for people, instead of the zoom doom you feel when you take a look at your diary for the day and it’s back to back calls all day. 


Physical wellbeing: 

  • Food and exercise. With a strong link between physical and mental health, many businesses have set up live exercise classes or yoga groups, as well as nutrition workshops, to try and encourage behaviours that may help. For companies that have started these activities during lockdown, how can you carry on progress once people start returning to the office?
  • Mindfulness workshops. It’s not only food and exercise, businesses can also support staff with other factors, recommending mindfulness techniques, sleep workshops or meditation practices. As well as being helpful, it opens up important discussions about mental health, wellbeing, and where people might be struggling. 

As ever, we always suggest surveying your staff regularly and discussing how they’re feeling and what might help.  Often the best ideas come from the people you’re trying to help. The pandemic will hopefully be the inflexion point for discussions about mental health and wellbeing that leads to better long-term outcomes, rather than a temporary problem that is resolved once life goes ‘back to normal’.

If you are an HR leader in your business, make sure you also take time to assess how you are feeling as well. Often HR leaders feel an obligation to be incredibly positive for everyone else, which is not only draining but may also mean other people don’t have visibility as to your own emotional wellbeing. Don’t forget to leverage the same coping mechanisms yourself that you might be suggesting to others. 

For more information about The School for CEOs please contact David Sole or Gemma Sole. 

About the author

Rich Pearce

"I work in ECI’s Commercial Team to support our management teams in unlocking growth opportunities by offering hands on support as they need it. I also lead our People function which involves driving the people agenda across the portfolio and managing much of the HR-related functions internally here at ECI."

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