Tackling ‘lonely boss syndrome’ – when employers should reach out

Written by: Justin Powlesland
Published on: 14 Jun 2022

Image: © reewungjunerr / Adobe StockImage: © reewungjunerr / Adobe Stock

“Lonely boss syndrome” is a term I only heard recently, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

Over the past few years, things have been really tough for many of us and I have personally really struggled a lot.

I have felt really lonely and on my own for some reason, even though I have lots of people around me. It was only when I reached out to a very good friend and explained that I was feeling so low, and I didn’t know why, that I realised I needed some help; some advice; some love.

COVID-19

It is no secret that the past couple of years have been tough for most people because of COVID-19.

I am not going to say I have had it any harder than anyone else, as this isn’t the case, but it got me thinking: anyone who is an employee has had to worry whether they would still have a job; would they be able to pay their bills.

No worse feeling probably exists than worrying about how you are going to support your family. In my case, I had 16 employees; 16 families worrying about money.

The stress this caused me is something I have never felt before, and I never want to feel again. I had to ensure our business would continue through the pandemic, otherwise we would have 16 families without their income.

This was at its worst during the first lockdown when we lost a huge amount of our business in a four-week period.

I didn’t sleep for months. At night, I would sit in my living room staring at the television until 5am, not really watching or taking anything in, but I needed the distraction from worrying about life. Everything that we had built over the years – all my blood, sweat and tears in building our business – was on the brink of disappearing.

When UK chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that furlough was being introduced, I’m sure the majority of business owners in the UK breathed a sigh of relief.

Furlough saved many businesses in the UK – ours included. With many workers in the UK on furlough in the summer of 2020, and feeling a little safer knowing the Government was ensuring they had some income, it was time for me to knuckle down on a daily basis to ensure there was a business for our employees to return to.

Coming into a 2,200 sq ft office on your own isn’t a nice feeling – especially when it’s usually a buzzing workplace with 16 others. All our plans for 2020 and beyond were put on the back burner, and new plans were put in place: “How do we ensure we get the business through the pandemic?”

As we eventually eased our staff back to working from home and then, later, back into the office, I noticed some were feeling the stress and worry that the whole situation had caused. It was horrible to witness. At this point, it was important to reassure them things would improve and their jobs were safe.

‘Lonely boss syndrome’

As I sat with my friend, he knew I wasn’t right, there was a problem and, eventually, I started telling him how I felt.

I’m not sure why I blurted it all out, but it came out. He sat and listened, and told me this wasn’t the first time he had heard someone saying the things that I was saying. His father-in-law was a director of a business and often spoke about “lonely boss syndrome”.

Running a company can be the best job in the world, but it’s tough. You have so much responsibility, so much pressure. According to a recent CEO survey by Harvard Business Review, more than 50 per cent of CEOs surveyed admitted being lonely. I never realised this until researching further – I thought it was just me.

In a business like ours, we aren’t big enough to have a board of directors; others to bounce off, engage with and maybe let off some steam with. I find that when it comes to making big decisions for the business, I will question myself over and over before committing to a decision.

How do we tackle this?

I guess that I started writing this article for a number of reasons. Firstly, if this reaches one person, and they read this and realise they are in a similar position as myself: you are not alone in this. I hope that person reaches out to me, as I’d love to connect.

Secondly, I find that writing things down is my way of getting things out. I’m horrendous at discussing my feelings – I’m the type of person who will always say “I’m good” if anyone asks how I am. It’s a reaction that seems to be built into me. 

Luckily, I have such a great group of friends and it’s great to chat to them, but I find that speaking with business owners, senior managers and such, really helps me to bounce ideas off or ask if they have experienced issues that our business may be having.

Is this what business owners need? Not necessarily networking events, but just to sit with a coffee and discuss our businesses? With the world changing because of the pandemic, with the use of Zoom and Teams, it is easier than ever to get a group of people together – although I always prefer face to face.

I remember being asked questions by my team during the early stages of the pandemic and I couldn’t answer the questions. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to – I couldn’t as I didn’t know the answers. No one knew what was happening with the world and I tuned into the news each day to see the COVID-19 briefing by members of Government, just like most of the UK, hoping to hear the words that “workers could return to their place of work”.

Mental health

My work satisfaction has historically come from setting myself goals or targets. When 2020 came along and destroyed any hope of us achieving those targets for the year, this affected me badly.

It was hard having to adjust and realise we had to have completely new targets to get through the pandemic. It has been hard for all of our team, but we have all worked extremely hard to get us back on track.

I am so proud of our team for doing this, and we have made some big changes to the business and our policies (such as bringing in “duvet days” and a staff wellness programme), which I hope will benefit our staff and be changes for the better moving forward.

I hope that anyone reading this might get something from it, and if you want to reach out, feel free to get in contact.