When it comes to the world of entrepreneurship, the old maxim “it’s lonely at the top” is not merely a cliché; rather, it proves to be a sad reality, especially for those in leadership positions and especially (again) for small business owners at the early stage. “When we think of a CEO, we tend to think of someone who has reached the pinnacle of professional and personal achievement. But there is so much more to this role than meets the eye,” shared Thomas Gelmi, a renowned InterPersonal Development Coach and Forbes Councils Member.
Whilst psychological research’s findings highlight that entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey, such a fact is mostly ignored and rarely discussed. Indeed, one thing is all too easy to lose sight of: CEOs are also human beings with human needs and human imperfections. How are these leaders growing and evolving? And who is helping them? Where do they go for guidance and honest feedback?
Loneliness can make the entrepreneurship world – which is seemingly exciting and glamorous – a little bit devoid of color and bleak at times. And slowly, that feeling becomes an epidemic. Coupled with the real and lingering COVID-19 epidemic – with social distancing, remote working, and cancellation of all business meetings and interactive events, such a sense of loneliness is undoubtedly compounded. So, how can you know whether you fall victim to loneliness in your own business, even when the COVID-19 outbreak abates? And more importantly, how can you address such an emotional epidemic? Let’s read on to uncover!
Entrepreneurship Blues: How Loneliness Becomes A Social Epidemic & How This Epidemic Worsens Due to Another Epidemic
According to an inaugural CEO Snapshot Survey by Harvard Business Review, half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their role, and among them, 61% believe it can hinder their performance. Furthermore, first-time solo entrepreneurs have reported feeling this more acutely than others, being particularly susceptible to this isolation and having their performance negatively affected. Besides, in the Self-Employment Review conducted by Julie Deane, the founder of Cambridge Satchel Company in the UK, isolation in business was cited as one of the biggest challenges that business owners and sole traders come up against.
As shared by Tori Utley, founder of several impact-driven companies such as Tinua and Doc’s Recovery House, “When I first started out as an entrepreneur, I never considered loneliness. Entrepreneurship was going to be an energizing experience, right? While there are definitely joys of entrepreneurship, there are also significant challenges. It wasn’t until I was working with my first attorney that I understood loneliness was a common feeling for entrepreneurs.”
Beyond any doubt, combined with the pressures of establishing a business from the ground up and “keep the ball rolling”, it is tough to be the leaders, who are responsible for all decision-making. “The stakes are high, the responsibilities many. There are boards to report to, shareholders to satisfy, staff to lead. The expectations for navigating all of this, especially in these VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) times, are sky-high,” stated Thomas Gelmi.
It emerges as common knowledge that the journey to becoming a top-level executive does require self-confidence, resolve, and problem-solving skills. These requirements often attract dominant alpha personalities – and many of them insist that asking for help is a sign of weakness since real leaders have to be always considered winners, always taking full control and performing at the highest level.
“You look at these people and you see what seems to be the pinnacle of success.” Nevertheless, “what remains unseen is the crushing pressure that this often produces. This impossible and misguided standard leads to the kind of dangerous unhappiness that too many executives carry underneath their façade. Under such a burden, depression, burnout or social isolation are pre-programmed — much too often leading to the worst-case scenario: a fatal outcome,” sincerely commented Thomas Gelmi.
Understandably, there is a good reason why loneliness is deemed as a social epidemic. Though being ignored or underestimated by several, loneliness is amongst the leading causes of depression, stress, anxiety, and potentially results in a range of mental illnesses. “People are living alone, away from extended families. We are becoming a society of virtual residents. We are also living longer,” according to Dr. Pragya Agarwal, Award-winning author of “SWAY: Unravelling Unconscious Bias”, behavioral scientist, two-time TEDx speaker, and founder of a research think-tank “50 Percent Project”.
Research has shown that loneliness and depression go hand-in-hand to diminish well-being: Indeed, the lonelier you are, the more depressed you feel. This makes you enter into such a never-ending cycle from which it becomes challenging to escape.
Additionally, loneliness heightens the likelihood of cognitive decline and is thought to increase the chances of dementia. One of the most recognizable symptoms of this social epidemic is the onset of depression and anxiety throughout your daily routine.
Whilst this social epidemic is yet to be well addressed, another epidemic takes place. With the advent of the “black-swan” COVID-19 outbreak, loneliness – which remains a silent plague in our community – gets compounded by the need to the social distance to curtail the rampant spread of the virus. Indeed, in addition to the intrinsic loneliness of being a leader, communication isolation does exist and exacerbate with the cancellation of almost every business meeting and events as well as a massive shift to work from home practices. This deprives entrepreneurs of face-to-face interaction and a sense of community in the workplace.
And even the presence of technology-empowered communication platforms helps, problems still arise. “The trends shaping how we work — increasing use of technology, more telecommuting, and the always-on work culture — are leaving Americans more stressed, less rested, spending more time on social media and less time with friends and family,” stated David Cordani, President and CEO of Cigna. “For the business community, it is resulting in less engagement, less productivity, and lower retention levels.”
There goes without saying that the sense of loneliness resulted from COVID-19 does affect all employees, not only managers or business owners. “We’re tired, we’re frustrated, we miss face-to-face contact, and we long for the days where stepping out for a cup of coffee wasn’t considered an extreme sport.”
Isolation fatigue does set in, which proves to impact work performance. “It takes a lot of energy to self-regulate behavior and emotions under the best of circumstances. But when one is lonely and feeling removed, the energy expenditure required to “act normal” can take people’s attention and focus away from task completion,” stated Lindsay Kohler, Lead Behavioural Scientist at scarlettabbott.
Additionally, our normal ways of socially interacting have been disrupted, and there isn’t yet a way to recreate an in-person experience online. Besides exacerbating loneliness for some, it also brings in another spillover effect: It weakens ties within an organization.
“One of the biggest challenges of remote work is that we’re social beings, so having fewer interactions with other people takes a toll on us,” said Mark Sawyier, CEO and co-founder of Bonfyre, a workplace culture platform. “It’s absolutely incumbent upon employers to help employees feel a little more connected to each other.”
With social distancing and remote work at all-time highs, reducing the levels of loneliness and worry may seem like an impossible task. “We’re all wired a little differently, so generalized organizational initiatives might fall short of curing workers’ concerns,” according to Brian J. Brim, Senior Practice Consultant for Gallup and Dana Williams, Sr. Strategic Advisor, Marketing, at Southwest Airlines.
And after all, isolation fatigue, poor work performance, together with weak ties among employees, compound the pressure and sense of loneliness for those being at the top – even when they are not the sole victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How to Erase The “Footprints” of Loneliness Within Your Entrepreneurial Path
The very first step to alleviating the sense of loneliness is to recognize its signs though there isn’t a fixed standard for them.
When it comes to signs of loneliness, a common one is that you start engaging in compulsive behaviors, such as shopping a lot or binge-watching TV. Other times loneliness can manifest itself with physical problems, including the onset of sleep disorders. The latter sign, although no less severe, can exacerbate the problem. Indeed, any drop in your level of health means you put increasing pressure on yourself when what you need to do is take care and rest. Plus, a lack of sleep can potentially lead to lowered immune response, and in turn more frequent bouts of cold and flu.
As soon as you find yourself have these signs, it’s more than critical to land a workable solution before your loneliness becomes too challenging to get over. Since psychological issues are complex, there isn’t a list per se of actions you must take; there remains a handful of practices that can do wonders for your mental health and your business.
#1. Make Networking Work for You
Love it or hate it, networking in business is more than essential. Whether you are an independent contractor, a home-based business owner, or have a fully-fledged storefront on Main Street, networking can help you to get out of the day-to-day silo of business ownership and then overcome your sense of isolation. From several insiders’ perspective, networking events are truly useful not just to establish business links and connections, but also to find a supportive network and foster a strong sense of belonging and community.
“Go out and network, and make real-world human connections. It is very crucial as solo entrepreneurs to also form real-world connections, even if it is just a quick catch-up over a cup of coffee,” advised Dr. Pragya Agarwal.
It is also crucial to have a realistic view that it might take time to find the right network or group for you. Let’s be very clear that not every network is going to work for everyone. Some entrepreneurs can be introverted in nature; thus, going out into a room full of strangers can seem daunting and scary- and more often than not, entrepreneurs find it easy to have excuses for not taking time out for live events. Notwithstanding that, it is of utmost importance to put ourselves out of our comfort zone once in a while.
So, which will be the first step? Search for “entrepreneur meetups” or “startup meetings” on the internet and you will probably come across some exciting Meetup-based communities or events. As starting a business is challenging at the best of times, a local Meetup group can offer you tons of useful, practical advice and support from like-minded individuals. What’s more, there are now a plethora of online business incubator groups especially the well-known Y Combinator’s Startup School, which provide some great networking and startup advice for budding entrepreneurs.
And beyond finding and joining an established group, you can be one to grow and nurture an online community of like-minded individuals. Bear in mind that social media is not just for selling or marketing; rather, let’s leverage it to connect with other like-minded individuals through Facebook groups and communities, Instagram hashtags, and Twitter lists.
What should be noted is that networking makes sense with even your internal employees. A social group within your organization to speak up your problems or simply chatter some personal stuff can work miracles – not only to alleviate your feeling of loneliness – but also to tighten the ties among your employees, promote a sense of commitment and improve your business performance. This is especially significant in our post-pandemic world.
#2. Find a Mentor, or Become a Mentor!
A good mentor will be someone who gets into your shoes and successfully walk the walk of business ownership. In addition to giving advice and guidance, he or she can offer you mental support, a source of motivation, and also a strong sense of companionship.
But how in the world could you find a mentor?
Sometimes it’s a matter of getting to know fellow, non-competing business owners or seeking the free mentoring services of a professional association such as SCORE or your local SBDC (Small Business Development Center).
Besides, up to your stage of business, business only networking groups might be worth considering. They may come at a certain expense yet prove invaluable to setting up and developing business with a group of dedicated individuals. Examples are The Alternative Board, Vistage, Business Networking International, Young President Council, and Entrepreneurs Organization.
“As a former member of Vistage, I was surprised to find so many of the problems managing directors and owner-managers have are universal regardless of the industry. These groups are a great way to share, in a safe, confidential environment, problems which every member wants to contribute to solving, including many work-life balance issues,” Stuart Phythian, Senior Director of various business, from private equity financed SME’s to Managing Director of UK and overseas divisions of blue chip companies.
Alternatively, could and should you become a mentor? The answer is “Yes”. Mentoring a group can be a mutually beneficial relationship that places value on your experience while also giving a reason for you to focus on the positives, share your wisdom, and place some perspective between you and your day-to-day business operations.
#3. Turn To “Mental Sports” & Mental Treatment
Take Up Meditation
For some business people, meditation has a bad reputation since it conjures up images of making “Omm” sounds and contorting yourself into strange positions. Nonetheless, if you consider that deep thinking or relaxing to favorite music is a form of meditation then it will definitely become a much more benign experience.
Beyond any doubt, any form of meditation, such as focused yoga or even just stretching, can be a great way to set yourself up for the day. The physical exercise combined with the quiet focus does great help to prepare you for the day ahead. Since the sedentary lifestyles emerge as the silent killer of already-silent entrepreneur life, let’s start saying goodbye to them.
Try Mental Therapy
Should you recognize the onset of loneliness, then therapy does offer lots of benefits to help ease these feelings, especially if the problem is becoming more acute with signs of anxiety, panic, or other feelings of helplessness.
A common form of therapy is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which offers training on outlook and adjusting your actions to cope with loneliness. A recommended introductory book on this therapy is by Jules Evans – Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations.
The Bottom Line
The path to becoming a more conscious and connected leader as well as avoiding the pitfalls of life “at the top” is the path to becoming a better person. Whereas loneliness has long been considered a bedfellow for those choosing the entrepreneurial life, establishing a business and having it up and running do not have to be a lonely endeavor.
Since the old adage “a problem shared is a problem halved” remains true, let’s speak up your problems with a wider community with shared interests and have your loneliness soothed.