Managing in isolation: It’s even lonelier at the top

Leaders will be experiencing a particular type of stress during the COVID-19 lockdown.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 28 Apr 2020
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Hybrid working

The structure of Gauthier Van Malderen’s work day hasn’t changed much since he and his 60 staff started working remotely during the coronavirus lockdown.

The CEO of digital library firm Perlego still starts with the usual troubleshooting expected in a fast-growing firm, followed by three or four internal team meetings, employee one-on-ones and checking in with investors. What has changed has been his living conditions.  

The 28-year-old founder has moved out of the London flat he shares with two housemates, and is currently living alone in a small Brussels flat so he can be close to his parents. 

“The hardest part has been the pressure to over-communicate. Information doesn’t flow like it does in the office and I find myself constantly repeating the same information to different colleagues. It has been very tough to always be the mentally positive person in the call.”

Remembering to shut off - Van Malderen says he has found himself at his laptop as late as 10pm - and being unable to take a quick walk or go to the pub after a challenging day have also been a struggle. “You’re stuck alone with your thoughts.”

Van Malderen is unlikely to be the only leader finding it tough. A YouGov poll suggests that as many as one in five Britons are living alone during the coronavirus lockdown, though the effects of isolation apply far beyond this group.

Lucinda Carney, CEO of 18-person wellbeing software business Actus, is isolating at home with her family. “I’m a natural extrovert but by Friday I’m absolutely knackered because I’ve spent so much time on virtual comms.”

Power stress

CEOs are likely to be experiencing an unusual type of stress during the coronavirus pandemic, says Tara Swart, a neuroscientist, executive coach and senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management. 

Swart terms the balancing act of having to operate amid deep uncertainty, while being expected to be the one to provide the answers and look after everyone, as “power stress”. Being in isolation is only going to exacerbate these feelings, she says. 

Recognising that you’re potentially going to be under mental strain is an important part of being able to cope. Swart highlights the Kubler Ross change curve, a psychological process that people go through when they’re experiencing unprecedented levels of stress. 

There are various forms but it usually starts with shock and anger, progressing to denial and elements of depression before shifting to bargaining and acceptance. Different people will move through these processes at different rates, says Swart.

“Acknowledging that, for example by opening up to a close colleague, is healthy in terms of moving you through those stages, because ultimately this lockdown is not going to last forever.

“This is so unprecedented, so nobody is expected to have all of the answers.”


Talking openly about your vulnerabilities can also help others open up. Journaling your feelings and your mood can also be helpful, says Swart, because it can make it easier to understand and keep track of how you and your colleagues might be feeling.

Carney agrees: “Isolation is a mindset. If you focus on the worst-case scenario it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I am choosing to focus on what I can control”. 

An important part of this for Carney has been accepting that she and her team are unlikely to be as productive given the heightened anxiety and isolation.

“In terms of management we’ve got clear goals and objectives, but they’re much smaller than normal, focusing on people's priorities week-in, week-out as opposed to solely on annual goals.”

Recognising short-term achievements, without putting pressure on people, gives you something to track and a reminder of what you have achieved that week, says Carney. 

“We all have off-days as usual, I think we usually just put a brave face on it.”

She is also having regular updates with her team and says recognised mental health first-aiders, which many companies already have, can play an important role despite not being in the office by speaking to any staff members who may be feeling vulnerable. 

Van Malderen says that regular, informal catch-ups with his network of colleagues, investors and family have been crucial in helping him cope. He has also introduced company-wide ‘down-time’ to ensure that people are able to step away from work.

He says the fact that Perlego is in a fortunate position as a business (it closed its latest funding round in November and has actually been recruiting during the lockdown to meet increased demand) has also helped him put his worries in perspective. 

Not everyone has that particular comfort, but the principle holds. For most of us, things could still be a lot worse, and we don’t have to go through it alone.

If a manager is worried about a staff member or feels like they need further help, the mental health charity Mind, the Mental Health Foundation and others can offer professional advice and support.

Image credit: GEERT VANDEN WIJNGAERT / Contributor via Getty 


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