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COVID-19 impacts C-suite mental health hardest

Dr Amy Silver: "The impact of fear in the C-suite is enormous and the trickling down impact is profound"


A new study on how remote working caused by the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the workforce has found that C-suite executives are experiencing the biggest effects.

The research by Oracle and human resources research and advisory firm Workplace Intelligence found executive-level managers including CEOs, CFOs, COOs and CIOs are struggling the most with adapting to working from home and are suffering from mental health issues more than their workers.

The study of more than 12,000 employees, managers, HR leaders and C-suite executives across 11 countries found:

  • C-suite executives (53%) have struggled with mental health issues in the workplace more than their employees (45%)
  • C-suite executives also had the hardest time adapting to virtual lifestyles with 85 per cent reporting significant remote work challenges including collaborating with teams virtually (39%), managing increased stress and anxiety (35%), and lacking workplace culture (34%)
  • C-suite executives were also 29 per cent more likely to experience difficulties learning new technologies for remote work than employees; once they adjusted to the new normal, C-suite execs were 26 per cent more likely to find increased productivity than employees
  • C-suite executives are the most open to using artificial intelligence for help with mental health: 73 per cent would prefer to talk to a robot (such as chatbots and digital assistants) about their mental health over a human compared to 61 per cent of employees
  • C-suite executives are 23 per cent more likely to see AI benefits than employees; 80 per cent of C-suite leaders noted AI has already helped their mental health at work

Like COVID-19 itself, the mental health crisis has impacted workplaces differently across the globe. Workers in India and China are being hit the hardest while workers in Italy, Germany and Japan are seeing less of an impact. India (89%), the UAE (86%), China (83%) and the US (81%) had the most workers reporting the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health. Workers in China (43%) and India (32%) are also the most burned out from overworking as a result of the coronavirus.

Fear has become a prevalent emotion due to the prolonged impact of COVID-19. In the C-suite, fear often presents as a lack of sharing, combat, indecision, tension, boring meetings or dependence on the CEO for management of disagreements or decision-making.

“The impact of fear in the C-suite is enormous and the trickling down impact is profound,” said psychologist Dr Amy Silver, Founder of The Courage Club.

Dr Amy Silver
Psychologist Dr Amy Silver, author of The Loudest Guest.

“We now have undeniable proof that when team members feel safe to be who they are, say what they think and feel, and know they will not be attacked or judged, their team performance is remarkable. It is essential that C-suite teams understand how to manage their fear individually and collectively. By doing so they will enable the safety that is essential for strong teaming, courageous behaviour and courageous communication.”

Dr Silver, who has released her book ‘The Loudest Guest’, outlined six steps that need to be taken to remove C-suite fear:

  1. Recognition: Understanding where fear is holding the executive team back is the first step. Examining the courage, vulnerability, humbleness, openness, sharing; asking for help; good listening and contribution by all; fun meetings; and ability to change direction or adopt new ideas are all key lag indicators of a group of people who are managing their fear well.
  2. Compassion: How capable are the individuals in having kind and clear conversations that show compassion towards each other? How able are the individuals and the group to acknowledge and accept mistakes, own their emotions and create the safe space required to hold each other to account or drive each others best self?
  3. Separation: Threat or perceived threat lead us to either flight, fight or freeze. While essential for our survival, it gets triggered often unnecessarily. Therefore, we do not always need to listen to our fear. Understanding that our fear reaction wants us to behave in one way (avoidance, attack or go mute) means we can notice when it is happening and call it out so that we can separate the fear from our action.
  4. Evaluation: We don’t want to be fearless as fear has many positive qualities. However, when fear gets in control it can dominate the agenda, our behaviour or the decisions we make. It is like having a loud guest, present at all interactions and steering the conversation in a direction of avoidance or conflict. The team can learn to develop the skill of working out when the guest of fear is telling the truth and whether it is helpful or unhelpful.
  5. Decision: Separation leads to a moment to reflect and prevent our reactions controlling our responses. We can make decisions that are thorough rather than biased by ego or group think. As collectives, teams need to capitalise on each others capabilities, learning how to explicitly support each other to use fear as a guide but not a director.
  6. Experimentation: On the other side of fear is growth. For some it will be stretching into vulnerability or trust, taking risks and pushing to continue learning. For others it will be about taking space, staying agile, leading strongly, taking responsibility, being a thought leader or a community leader. Using a hierarchy of increasingly different scenarios, we can experiment our way towards the behaviours we know we want to have, experiment with moving through fear safely.

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