Managing Energy

Executives report increasing levels of stress and exhaustion as impacts of pandemic continue to unfold

Following global lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic, IMD quickly transferred much of its executive learning to virtual delivery. In working with a variety of clients from across the globe, Professor Susan Goldsworthy noticed increased levels of anxiety amongst executives. In April 2020, she began a survey on virtual programs to discover how people were feeling about their energy levels. Leveraging a model from The Energy Project, program participants were asked to vote anonymously as to where they felt they were spending most of their time, energy wise, in the past two to three months.

The choices were; Performance Zone, Recovery Zone, Survival Zone and Burnout Zone.

When someone is in the Performance Zone, they are feeling confident, connected and hopeful, and ready to face challenges and multiple demands; their energy is high and positive. In Recovery Zone, people feel calm and relaxed where their energy may be low but remains positive. In Survival Zone, people begin to feel defensive, frustrated and anxious. They can become irritable more quickly and their energy is high yet negative. In Burnout Zone, people report feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and defeated with both low and negative energy levels.

Back in April 2020, the results showed that 10-15% of people rated themselves as feeling on the left-hand side of the chart (ie in survival or burnout zones). Up to 60-70% considered themselves to be in the Performance Zone.  However, since April 2021, these figures have changed significantly with between 35% and 75% of executives on programs rating themselves as feeling in the survival or burnout zones. The number of people feeling they are in the Performance Zone tends to be in the 20-40% range.

“From this survey with over 1300 executives, many report feeling an increasing sense of exhaustion and frustration,” says Professor Goldsworthy. “Even those who consider themselves to be in the performance zone often agree that their bandwidth has narrowed and they can more easily become irritated or annoyed by smaller events that prior to the pandemic they would have handled more calmly.”  

These results should be ringing alarm bells within organizations as this data is reported by leaders at senior levels within organizations and may indicate even greater levels of challenge at lower levels of the organizational hierarchy. According to the United Nations, the world is facing an unprecedented global health crisis. Increasingly, studies are showing rises in mental health issues as people continue to live in uncertainty. A recent global survey of 1,500 people from 46 countries shows that, overall, perceived well-being has declined by 85% in the past year, and people are experiencing increases in loneliness and isolation, as well as stress and job demands, resulting in growing disengagement at work.

Professor Alyson Meister who has been conducting research into mental health and wellbeing shares, “The new normal of life during COVID-19 has clearly exacerbated some of the levers of stress and burnout, as well as triggering new ones.  In the era of the home office, it’s difficult to retain work-home boundaries, develop a sense of work community, or feel recognized for the hard work you’re doing. In my dialogues with executives, constant time pressure, lack of social work interaction and blurred boundaries are the most commonly noted chronic stressors.”

Reflecting these findings, IMD is increasingly receiving requests from companies for programs addressing resilience, stress management and wellbeing.