It’s Lonely (and Stressful) at the Top!

20 February 2019

The myths surrounding psychological distress often get a lot of press. I thought I’d make the most of my first column to illustrate one myth: that bosses never suffer from psychological distress, much less burnout, because they can make all the right decisions and therefore prevent stressful situations.

How many times have I heard this myth? Not only during company conferences, but also directly from the mouths of executives breaking down in my office… If I’m the boss, I should be able to prevent burnout, right?

In fact, occupational psychology research has clearly proven the opposite: the higher we progress in a company, the greater the risk of burnout!

It’s often one of the first things I cover with entrepreneurs who come to me because they’re suffering from burnout. This condition develops when we are exposed to chronic stress. And if there’s one thing every entrepreneur knows, it’s stress. It’s therefore very important to recognize the sources of stress within an organization (I’ll cover this topic in my next column!) and to develop the skills to deal with them.

An entrepreneur or executive is usually the person at the top of the pyramid, the person who is responsible in the event of an emergency. This is even more true when you own the business. So, you can understand that anybody in this position is dealing with the highest amount of stress.

There are some other risk factors that explain why executives are more exposed to stress: when a company is going through a period of uncertainty, the management often has to make the decisions ensuring the company’s continuation. Uncertainty is often synonymous with stress, and if uncertainty becomes chronic, stress will also.


The Strength of a Network

We often hear people say, “It’s lonely at the top,” and research has proven it. Executives often feel socially isolated. They work a significant number of hours per week and their network can fall apart after several years of intensive work. Yet, social support is one of the most important tools for managing stress.

While support from your loved ones is important, support from your peers is even more so. If you are suffering from loneliness, contact a fellow entrepreneur, talk to them about the challenges you are facing and the solutions you have developed. Whether you do this as a group discussion or through mentoring with other entrepreneurs, these interactions can help break your isolation.

Me + the Company

Likewise, after spending several years working to develop a business project, executives run the risk of seeing their identity fuse with the company’s. The company becomes part of us, rather than something that we created. It becomes difficult to manage the pressures from investors, markets and employees without feeling the direct impact on your own person, and sometimes on your own self-esteem.

A good strategy to adopt is to develop your personal life independently from your work life. In this way, you can truly enjoy yourself during a water polo match, while gliding, or while coaching a baseball team, and make the most of that time to develop a separate identity from your work identity. A different, complementary identity, that helps us thrive.

Entrepreneurship is an extreme sport and training to manage your mental health is just as important as inspecting your canopy before skydiving. Spread the word!


You may also like: 5 Ways to Prevent Psychological Distress

About the author

Nicolas Chevrier

About Nicolas Chevrier

Dr. Nicolas Chevrier, psychologist, holds a Master’s in Clinical Psychology and a PhD in Occupational and Organizational Psychology, in which he focused on the impact organizational factors can have on the development of burnout.