Tech leaders feeling more stress after losing traditional work groups during pandemic

Business leaders bear responsibility for employees' mental wellbeing, despite the pandemic-driven onslaught of remote interaction and supplanted in-person contact, according to a new survey.

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Image: iStock/Tijana87

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has pushed tech and business leaders dangerously close to the tipping point of stress, according to a recent study by The Kung Group, a management consulting firm. According to a spokesperson, the goal of the study, "Self-Care Mental Wellbeing in COVID-19," is to "serve as a proxy for understanding the health of America's entrepreneurial ecosystem." 

Their staff have shifted from in-office to remote work (and have been doing so for almost six months), but tech and business leaders continue to bear the responsibility of their staff. During the pandemic, they've likely only interacted with each other online in virtual meetings (i.e. Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, or Cisco WebEx). 

Team leaders are not only physically isolated from staff, but isolated from authentic, objective interactions too, yet shouldering the responsibility not only for keeping the company afloat in an uncertain time, but for employees' mental wellbeing. The survey looked at the far-reaching consequences and found that the loss of traditional work groups has left leaders lacking support and mounting stress.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

It can be a challenge for the boss to keep abreast and mediate others' mental health when they are extremely stressed themselves. When the team leader is highly stressed, it's very likely to quickly manifest into a toxic work culture.

"Most leaders are overworking, and then there's the loss of intimacy and connection and real feelings over Zoom," said Jocelyn Kung, CEO of The Kung Group. "It affects decision making," but, she added, "Even though 78% [of leaders] said [in the survey] they were suffering, nearly the same amount, 77%, said this time of great isolation has been a period of massive growth." Kung said that growth reflects that companies are "pivoting well," but moreover,  it's "an opportunity for their own personal development and creativity."

Even prior to COVID-19, half of CEOs reported feelings of loneliness and isolation, The Kung Group's research found. Today, the economy is uncertain and those CEOs are wrestling with not only the troubling state of their businesses, personal finances, and the prospects of an eventual return to the "old normal." Research also found that those business leaders have given attention to their staff's mental wellbeing, but have neglected their own mental health.

There needs to be a push for more human connection, Kung said. We are "going into this dark time with a loss of the support systems," and leaders "need to renew their commitments," when they ask themselves, "What do we want to be known for? We're shaping a new world, the new normal is emerging," and they "need to design a future for themselves, dig really deep into their value systems," considering different motivations, look into service, perhaps, "finding ways to do good for the greater community." 

Kung said, this new way of work and life has "been imposed on us and it's a macro condition," and this is also "a time not to worry about ROI," but how to assess how you feel or are dealing "with the political and racial tensions around identity."

Mental wellbeing is suffering 

  • 78% of tech founders said their mental wellbeing has suffered since the onset of COVID-19
  • 83% said the loss of their traditional groups (at work and socially) exacerbated stress, anxiety, and feelings of depression
  • 65% said their interactions with colleagues and employees "lacks the depth and feeling of authentic connection" they had prior to COVID-19
  • 66% of founders feel "lonely"
  • 44% of founders are now seeing a therapist or mental health professional
  • To cope with the personal challenges they're experiencing, some founders have resorted to unhealthy behaviors: 60% have been overworking; 57% have been watching too much news; 38% have been drinking and using substances; 23% of founders have chosen to relocate to a rural setting since the onset of COVID-19, but 77% have opted to say where they are; and 77% cited they believe they will look back at this period as one of growth and creation, while 23% said as relative stagnation and/or challenges.

Regarding the new normal, Kung predicts that "we're in it for awhile" and to fully develop a work-culture sense of empathy and community and to ensure clarity, is to step out of what many leaders think of as their mental wheelhouse. She points out that in the many personality studies The Kung Group has conducted, "50% of leaders are very structured in their thinking, in black-and-white and in rules," which just adds more stress to "this type of person." 

The concept brought up by this most recent study of the loss of leaders' groups can provide, she added, "a subset of networks of communication opportunities in both the executive and employee spaces."

Develop an office culture (a remote one) in which there is respect for self-care and where everyone, on any level, can support each other, she suggested. While the most "typical solutions, of Zoom happy hours, games, and social activities, are okay, they don't address the deeper needs for expression and more intimate connections," which are ultimately stress relievers.

Kung said that solutions must be done "a step at a time," and that the most important issue for leaders and their employees is to "provide clarity," better and more in-depth communication, and finally, "have short-term goals to hit." 

Leaders shouldn't feel they must hide or suppress being overwhelmed, but should express empathy with the employees who are also struggling with the balance of having work and home life in one space. 

All employees should have the opportunity "to ponder" she said, ensure them that they're in a safe place and are provided with an empathetic response. "I'm 100% sure that is what we need to do, where the new creativity will emerge."

Leaders, she said, must "provide their employees with faith and consider how to inspire [their] teams and the organization" as a whole, "moving towards a brighter future."

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By N.F. Mendoza

N.F. Mendoza is a writer at TechRepublic and based in Los Angeles. She has a BA in Broadcast Journalism and Cinema Critical Studies and a Master's of Professional Writing, both from USC. Nadine has more than 20 years experience as a journalist coveri...