The CEO is the centrepiece that connects the lower, mid and top tier of a business. It falls onto them to execute strategies and operations from a down-up and top-down perspective, comprising everything from board work to sales. Hence, chief executive officers are currently in the midst of having to deal with both their own stress and “indirect” pressure coming from the board, management and employees.
As we find ourselves in a situation that is so unique and hard to grasp, my only way of coping is to focus on how I can contribute here and now. My intention was to continue writing an article I outlined about a month ago. I wanted to write something clever about cognitive bias (such as overconfidence in executive decision-making), but it just doesn’t feel right at the moment. I instead turn to speak around today’s unparalleled stress and how it affects us and, most notably, our leaders.
Short and long-term stress
When facing a threat, the human body reacts. Whether the threat is real or not, the perception of the threat is very real. Regardless of whether the threat is physical, medical or existential – the body reacts.
For most of us in the Western part of the world these kinds of threats are typically brief. For instance; we’re suddenly face-to-face with an angrily barking dog in the woods. Our blood pressure rises quickly and we’re in fight-or-flight mode within seconds. But then we see the owner approaching, and she ties the dog to its leash. The stress-built reaction has been instant and strong, mobilising your body to defend itself. Yet, once the dog-threat is neutralised, you resume business and the stress subsides.
COVID-19, however, is a different kind of threat. With no end in sight, it’s causing us prolonged and constant stress. It’s unforeseen, it’s everywhere and it’s chaotic. Since the threat is long-lived, we can expect the stress-based reactions in people to be long-lived as well. Research has proven that our mental well-being is heavily affected when enduring long-term stress – exponentially increasing the risk of irrational behaviour and mental illness. Applying remote work also means not being able to closely follow the health of peers and employees, which adds to the issue.
CEOs are under enormous pressure
People at the top of their careers are perceived as rational, and are often used to high levels of stress in their everyday lives. Starting or running a company can be a stressful operation, but also results in experience that helps develop relevant coping strategies.
However, CEOs all over the world are now struggling to meet the pressure from their executive teams, employees and boards of directors – coping strategies or not. Although most CEOs can handle a high amount of stress, the fact that there is no time to recover will undoubtedly deteriorate their performance and mental health. Not because they are weak, but because they are human.
How can we help our CEOs?
This is certainly not the time for increased control or criticism. This is the time for close communication regarding what a particular CEO perceive as the right type of support. If your board hasn’t prioritised close collaboration and succession planning before, we encourage you to do so.
Adopting digital solutions and tools can greatly simplify the lives of CEOs. For example, there are ones that offer a structured, experienced approach to helping leaders create feedback loops and crisis management systems. Supporting remote leadership through this kind of technology can be the difference between panic and order in your organisation.