Leadership   //   October 31, 2022  ■  7 min read

Under pressure: Why bosses are struggling more than ever

With the dark clouds of a global recession gathering and workers enveloped by a sense of dread and job insecurity, it’s easy to overlook the plight of those in the eye of the storm: the big bosses. And new data indicates that leaders around the globe are struggling like never before.

The latest Future Forum Pulse report — a survey of almost 11,000 workers across the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the U.K. published in October — found that executives’ sentiment and experience scores had sunk to record lows. Compared to a year ago, execs reported a 15% decline in the working environment, a 20% drop in work-life balance, and a 40% increase in work-related stress and anxiety.

“We’re in the middle of the biggest workplace paradigm shift we’re likely to see in our lifetimes, and leaders are feeling that pressure,” said Sheela Subramanian, vp and co-founder of Future Forum. 

She added that the shifting macroeconomic conditions, the Great Resignation, and the changing demands of employees around flexibility make it “harder to lead with confidence — you can no longer rely on the old leadership playbooks.”

The results shared by Future Forum, Slack’s research consortium on the future of work, were mirrored in workplace culture and recognition firm O.C. Tanner’s 2023 Global Culture Report, which involved 36,000 workers from 20 countries. “We found that leaders are 43% more likely to say that work is interfering with their ability to be happy in other areas of their lives,” said Robert Ordever, the organization’s European managing director. 

The saying that “a happy worker is a productive worker” is particularly relevant to those in a position of power. “When leaders don’t thrive, their employees, teams, and organizations won’t either,” added Ordever.

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity

Thriving leaders are vital now, with organizations of all sizes beset by VUCA — an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity — a term originally coined by economists Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus.

Thom Dennis, a culture change coach and founder and CEO of Serenity in Leadership, argued that U.K. bosses have it especially tough currently. “Businesses are facing constant additional challenges arising from climate change, austerity, Brexit, the pandemic, and the war in Ukraine,” he said. “There is also the increasing movement of uprooted people, unexpected competition, new technology, and surprising disruptors, and the consequences of a crippled supply chain along with the cost-of-living crisis.”

Little wonder, then, that this confluence of threats is causing more executives to be stressed. However, workers require robust and inspirational leadership more than ever during these acute and uncertain times. “We need inspiring and dependable leaders in business to rise from the ashes to motivate and lead by example with determination and compassion,” added Dennis.

So what are the characteristics of great business leaders in a VUCA world? Dennis said they must be able to “convert anxiety into energy” by engaging key stakeholders as a group or on an individual basis. Further, trust and transparency, and a strong sense of purpose are crucial. He continued that leaders should also be principled, compassionate, flexible, and courageous. 

Most importantly, they should be “bespoke leaders,” Dennis said. “Some businesses may be looking for pathfinders and guides; others need commanders, and more still want pilots to guide them through VUCA times.” He added that whatever the custom requirement, there is no space for self-deprecating leaders. “Equally, egotists create conflict and poor communication.”

Feeling the effects of burnout

Meanwhile, a boss suffering from burnout and poor mental health can have a toxic effect on company culture. Alarmingly, 70% of U.K. C-suite execs feel burnt out, according to a survey by Visier, an employee analytics and workforce platform. The study also suggested a sliding stress scale depending on the seniority level: the C-suite burnout figure was considerably higher than mid-level (55%) and first-level (45%) management personnel.

Having burnt-out people in essential decision-making roles is dangerous, stressed Brian Kropp, former group vp and chief of research for Gartner’s HR practice, in his keynote speech at Gartner ReimagineHR in London in September. Kropp, who has since become a managing director at consulting firm Accenture, stated that 93% of the HR professionals surveyed by Gartner answered that they are worried about employee burnout, while staff are more stressed at work than they ever have been before.

Overworking is counter-productive for anyone, though, and can have hazardous consequences, Kropp added. The combination of sloppiness and anxiety caused by tiredness is likely to cause problems at work.

Uncomfortable future

A separate report by O.C. Tanner revealed that burnout for mid-level managers is worsening. Indeed, 70% of respondents said they believe their managers are possibly or definitely stressed. “Responsibilities now transcend managing employees’ job performance and hitting KPIs to include handling employee well-being and inclusion, managing remote and hybrid teams, and hiring and retaining employees in the Great Resignation,” said O.C. Tanner’s Ordever.

Worryingly, things are likely to become worse before they improve. “It’s an uncomfortable reality, but with turbulence and economic uncertainty ahead, leaders are going to be forced to make some difficult decisions as they adapt,” said Becky Schnauffer, LinkedIn’s head of global clients in EMEA and LATAM.

Indeed, new global research, launched by LinkedIn at the start of November showed that the current climate is compelling leaders to take tough calls. “Companies are rewinding recent progress on areas that we know are important to employees, such as flexible work (68%), skills development (74%), and well-being initiatives (75%),” added Schnauffer.

According to data released in late October from YouGov and Meta on the state of U.K. organizations, bosses of small- to medium-sized enterprises are possibly feeling the most strain. “Small businesses are the lifeblood of the U.K. economy, and right now, they face the challenge of a lifetime just to keep the lights on,” said Steve Hatch, vp northern Europe at Meta. 

He pointed out that of the 1,000 SME leaders surveyed, 42% said their top priority in the next six months is survival, and almost one-third (31%) worried that their businesses would be unable to match outgoings in the coming year.

Admitting vulnerability

Considering the likely challenges that lie ahead, Dr. Lynne Green, chief clinical officer at Kooth, a digital mental health provider in the U.K., urged leaders to be honest when they are struggling. She cited McKinsey 2021 research that showed 52% of employees still avoid asking for help due to shame. “It might be tempting for some leaders to put on a brave face for the sake of others,” she said. “This approach often does more harm than good by sending the wrong message to employees and contributing to mental health stigma.”

By admitting their state of vulnerability, a boss can lead by example here. “It’s critical that the workplace is equipped for well-being, enabling leaders to easily champion employee mental health,” Dr. Green said. Given the nearing storm clouds for businesses, organizations must move quickly to integrate well-being into all levels of the workforce, she concluded. “[To cope] it requires building a mental well-being ecosystem where there are tools and processes to support every employee at every stage.”

By the numbers

  • 50% of U.S. 1,200 workers polled, said they turn their webcam off the majority of online meetings. 
    [Source of data: Quality Logo Products report.]
  • 53% of U.S. 300 small business owners feel that being fully remote/hybrid has created a less cohesive culture (more cliques and smaller social groups have formed), 63% say there has been an increase in their employees’ productivity.
    [Source of data: Intermedia Cloud Communications report.]

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  • Airbus has given its U.K. workforce a one-off £1,500 each to help with current cost-of-living crisis. [Deeside.com]
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