Anguish in the Remote C-Suite

A new study finds C-suite executives struggle with mental health issues more than even their employees in the pandemic. Will this shape their view of future work models?

Unlike some of their younger, lower-level peers, CEOs most likely haven’t spent the pandemic working in a cramped apartment with roommates. They probably carved out a comfortable space for work at home, if they didn’t have a home office already, complete with all the hardware and software needed. They most likely haven’t had to move back in with their parents or stretched in other ways to save money, either.

Yet even without having to deal with many of the more common pandemic struggles, an overwhelming and surprising number of C-suite executives say the toll on them personally has been dramatic. Indeed, 85% of top bosses around the world say they have had significant challenges adjusting to remote work, versus 77% of all employees who say the same thing, according to a new survey from the business software giant Oracle. More than half, 53%, say they have struggled with mental health issues, compared to 45% of all employees.

While the numbers may sound surprising, experts say the reasons behind the high levels of anguish around remote work are not. CEOs, CFOs, and everyone else at the top of the corporate ladder have lost the ability to interact physically with employees, customers, investors, and other stakeholders. Connecting this way is a key facet of their leadership skills, and in many cases, helped propel them to the top of the corporate world in the first place. It’s been particularly difficult for CEOs who normally work in large corporate offices or who derive energy from speaking to large groups. “People get inspired by those who are around them,” says Tierney Remick, a Korn Ferry vice chair and coleader of the firm’s Board and CEO Services practice.

The pandemic has caused tremendous stress for many leaders, of course. Some had to make fast decisions to literally save the company from bankruptcy. Others had the reverse problem and needed to take action to soak up a massive influx of demand. And nearly every leader worldwide had to respond so their employees could work safely and feel engaged. Meanwhile, with remote work, C-suite leaders have experienced many of the same frustrations as their rank-and-file employees. In the Oracle study, which surveyed more than 12,000 employees across 11 countries, 39% of the top executives said they had difficulties collaborating with teams, 35% reported issues managing increased stress or anxiety, and 29% said they had trouble learning new technologies needed for remote work.

To be sure, as with any member of their staff, top executives are finding better ways to cope, from participating in wellness programs to taking proper breaks. Still, experts say the inability to talk with people in person can hit leaders particularly hard. Many relied on the ability to strike up conversations with colleagues and employees, bump into customers at conferences, or have an impromptu lunch or coffee with their direct reports. A lot of ideas and brainstorming happens with those informal conversations. Now, while video calls dominate, leaders have lost their ability to identify physical cues from colleagues or otherwise read the room. “All of the emotional intelligence and sensory perceptions that help to shape a point of view and manage risk are less available now,” says Jane Stevenson, a vice chair at Korn Ferry and global leader of the firm’s CEO Succession practice.

Stevenson says the back-to-back-to-back video call environment has also become exhausting. “The opportunity for physical recovery is nonexistent,” she says, “and that impacts your focus and your ability to get work done.” And while many rank-and-file employees may appreciate that their commuting times decreased to zero, all the time many top leaders spend traveling the world to meet people actually provided them with hours to take a little time to reflect or just decompress. Now, there is often no time between virtual meetings, and when a leader is done with calls, they’re left staring at the same four walls they see all the time. The isolation continues even after the workday is done, since many of the ancillary activities C-suite executives are involved with, such as museum exhibitions, nonprofit events, or sitting on boards of other organizations, have either been canceled or become yet another video call to sit through.

On the plus side, experts say the frustrations these leaders face with remote work now may influence how they view the future of their workplace once the pandemic ends—in positive and successful ways. In the meantime, savvy leaders have found ways to try to make remote work less frustrating. Some bake in time between video calls just to take a walk, Remick says. Some have instituted “No Zoom Fridays” to have at least one day of the week without video calls. Others have invited employees who live nearby to socially distanced lunches or coffees. Still others, in cities that aren’t locked down, have gone to work in the empty office for a day or two—and let some of their colleagues know they’re at the office if they want to meet up, in a socially distanced way.