“Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” – Martin Luther King
If today most of us are returning to living within a certain normality, it is thanks to the dedication of leaders who, in one of the most critical moments in recent history, guided their teams with unwavering commitment. Amidst the hardships, they led by courage rather than fear.
Many of these leaders are now navigating a uniquely emotional situation. The memories of immense pressure, the weight of responsibility and the determination to lead their teams to save lives or manage a degree of normalcy for the rest of us have left an indelible mark on their minds and hearts.
Three years later, Covid-19 is no longer considered a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, as announced by the World Health Organization earlier this month. The masks have fallen from our faces, and while we breathe a sigh of relief, many of these leaders continue to suffocate. Not because of Covid-19, but because of what it left as emotional heritage. “The industry feels burnout,” says a senior executive who led a business managing Covid testing, emphasizing that it will be critical to stop looking for how things used to be and have a vision for the future.
Her sentiment resonates. Globally, senior leaders in biopharma, healthcare, and essential industries, including first responders and educators, faced insurmountable pressures to chart new courses and lead teams in an unknown scenario. They were forced to make quick and difficult decisions that affected the health, jobs and lives of millions of people. In the biopharma industry, they worked tirelessly to develop, manufacture and distribute vaccines, life-saving medicines and equipment. They spent sleepless nights, dedicated energy and time and took on great responsibilities. Across the healthcare ecosystem, providers and services organizations stood up new technologies, scaled-up capacity, and ensured access to at-home care at an unprecedented level.
Due to psychological pressure and extreme demands, many of them are still grappling with mental health. Stress, constant tension and the trauma of dealing with an unprecedented crisis are leading many of these professionals to experience burnout, a condition of physical and emotional exhaustion that can result in work absenteeism and the need for medical care. Emotional exhaustion can lead to feelings of hopelessness, irritability and anxiety, as well as a decrease in the ability to cope with stress.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the world is currently facing a second pandemic, this time in mental health. This can be particularly seen in the top echelons of companies, where senior leaders have not had much of a chance to catch their breath and reflect on all that they and their companies have been through over the last three years.
A Pathway to Recovery
In 2021, at the height of the pandemic, we conducted a global survey of CEOs, finding that to reset their course, they were intentionally expanding their capacity to be adaptive, relational and self-aware. As one CEO shared: “The past year has made me more aware of the need to find space to recenter and refocus.”
Recovery takes different forms for different individuals. While seeking psychological support is crucial, another powerful tool for recovery is rediscovering a sense of purpose. Despite the trauma of the pandemic, many leaders found motivation in knowing that their work directly benefited society. By anchoring themselves to their North Star, they discovered meaning and persevered through the most challenging times.
Said one leader who was on the frontlines of the vaccine development: “What helped was remembering the larger mission. I was having my own experiences about Covid-19 and its impact, but kept realizing that there was a larger social imperative at play.” Another executive who led Covid testing efforts shared a similar outlook of that time. “What kept me going during this time was the belief I was working for the greater good.... get people back to work, keep people home when they were positive, help to get entertainment back to our world,” she remarked. And in a forum of healthcare technology executives, there was energy in the recognition of the value of technology and need for change, enabling and accelerating the vision of automation, telemedicine, and remote monitoring.
However, purpose alone is not enough. Leaders must also prioritize self-care, finding a balance between peak performance and relaxation. Recognizing that breaks and boundaries are not signs of weakness, but vital steps to sustain energy in the long run, is essential. Such practices have a ripple effect on teams, fostering resilience and well-being.
To spring that culture across the organization, leaders must model this self-care for their teams. They can encourage open and honest conversations about mental health, create opportunities for team members to take breaks and recharge, and foster a workplace environment that values both performance and relaxation.
Building a strong and empathetic workplace culture also relies on sharing stories and supporting one another. As another CEO expressed in our survey, "Leadership is increasingly about humanity, sharing imperfection, being authentic, and empathetic." We wholeheartedly agree. To combat the mental health pandemic, the vaccine lies not in a needle but in fostering self-care and a nurturing, supportive environment for all.