“First was the fear of death. My death, my father, my wife and my children. Then I was startled by the difference in behavior in my own family: some were more relaxed with social distancing, others, like me, more rigorous. Having to deal with the sadness of my children at this stage was also not a piece of cake”.
“From a professional point of view, everyone seems to have gone crazy! They talk about exhaustion, cry, think that everything is the company’s responsibility. I stopped exercising, I started eating more, drinking more… In short, very difficult times”.
“I resisted looking for a specialist. Then I talked about what I was feeling with a person who provided services at the company. She helped me a lot. I realized that if I didn’t seek specialized help, I would break. I almost broke. I came very close.”
“This whole situation made me give more value to life, to my self-knowledge and to understand my limits. I won’t be able to save the world, but I have to do my part. I realized that the tantrums I had with my boss weren’t for him. They were for my life. I was dissatisfied with my marriage, with my wife’s dependence on me. I always needed to be the strong one… I got tired”.
“I almost separated, but I still haven’t had the courage. The family is very important to me, but the marriage is not easy to sustain. The pandemic put us together in a different way, with a different intensity. I wasn’t prepared for this.”
“This disease ended up catching my father, I don’t know how. He was indoors, overprotected, and gone. A pain without size”.
The above account of Jorge (fictitious name), 56 years old, vice president of a large retail chain, who cries copiously when talking about his father, proves that the process of extreme exhaustion, work-related stress and physical exhaustion, burnout, it also rose to the top during the pandemic.
Research by Betânia Tanure de Barros, PhD in Psychology, from BTA Associados, a specialist in organizational culture, carried out about a month ago with a thousand executives in command positions (presidents, vice presidents, counselors, directors) showed that 88% had never been through a crisis as strong in life as the current one. More than half of them (58%) are very afraid of dying. Already 42% have decided to separate from their spouse or are thinking about the matter seriously.
“We are experiencing four simultaneous crises,” says Betânia. “Economic-financial, sanitary, anthropological and affective”. The pandemic that impacted the economy affected our daily lives, the way we interact and our view of the world, says the expert. “That counts for everyone, whether you live on 30 or 300 square meters,” she says.
Leaders have always occupied this position because they could see a horizon and deliver answers, give direction – whether in business or in the family. But when a moment of generalized doubts, such as the current one, arrives, this leader finds himself without a direction, without ground, and needs to understand that he is also fallible and vulnerable, says Betânia.
“Executives are living at a very relevant level of exhaustion,” he says. “Leaders take all the frustration from subordinates and feel anguished and depressed because they weren’t trained to deal with it, while they feel that way too.”
In the eyes of the world, says the expert, the issue is reduced to excess work, but the reality goes far beyond that.
“It is not something that can be solved with a day off, but with the perception that leaders are people of flesh and blood, they are not above good and evil, they are afraid and doubtful about the future.”
That’s what happened to Patrícia (not her real name), 47, a former director of human resources at a major automaker. “In all that time, I’ve kept myself a lot of pain,” she says.
“In this executive life you always have to give answers, show the way. Asking for help and saying that you don’t know or that you can’t is considered a weakness. Nobody wants a weak leader.”
Married and mother of two girls, aged 12 and 15, she had to reconcile the routines at home, her daughters’ remote teaching and 12 hours of work a day, often including the weekend. Insomnia and anxiety became frequent symptoms, as well as persistent numbness in the left arm.
“It was the worst crisis of my life,” she says, who left the automaker a few weeks ago to take a new job at a consumer goods company.
“Knowing that there were more than 20,000 people whose fate depended in part on me, on the solutions I helped to find. But I didn’t know how long this crisis would last, how long the company could survive, if I would be unemployed, living in a city like São Paulo, where violence could explode”.
When she needed to travel again for the company, she was very afraid of being contaminated. “I kept thinking about how my daughters would be if something happened to me”, she says. For Patrícia, one of the most painful things about this phase was seeing her absence as a mother.
“Corporate life consumed me in an intense way, a lot of travel, a lot of meetings. It’s always been that way since I got off maternity leave,” she says. “I don’t like to talk about ‘pros’ in this pandemic, because it’s a painful period, but now I’ve had the opportunity to live my daughters’ routine. I still love my career and I want new challenges, but now I’m going to think about how to do this, so that my personal and professional life is really balanced and I don’t feel guilty anymore”.
The pressure to make decisions that would have an impact on the fate of many families also weighed on Jean Carlo Nogueira, 38, Gol’s executive director of people and culture. “The civil aviation industry was one of the most affected by the crisis: overnight, our number of daily flights increased from 900 to 50”, he says, referring to April 2020.
Gol made union negotiations to reduce wages and hours and opened a voluntary resignation plan (PDV). “We took the decision not to fire, we entered the crisis thinking that it would last 90 days”, says the executive. “But the crisis continued and we had to give answers to 16,000 employees, 16,000 families,” he says.
About a thousand employees joined the POS.
Nogueira started to have bouts of insomnia. “I woke up at 2 am and couldn’t sleep anymore,” he says. Living close to Gol’s headquarters, in the south of São Paulo, he made the decision to continue working in person at the company — when his entire team was in the home office. The president and the other directors did the same.
“Sometimes I would look around and cry, seeing everything empty, a department where 150 people used to work, a headquarters with 1,500 people. It was depressing. I was wondering when all this would pass,” he says.
“It’s important to take off that superhero cape that the leader wears, you know? Knowing that I don’t have to have all the answers, because this is a crisis that is not in the manuals”.
For Nogueira, the fact of continuing to work at the company helped to preserve the relationship with his wife and two children, aged 5 and 11 years. “My wife decided, even before the pandemic, to stop working and dedicate herself to our children. She was amazing, my family was a foundation that helped me through this phase. But I saw many marriages break up, including unfriendly separations”.
Due to personal experience, the executive says he was not afraid of death. “My youngest child was born prematurely, in December 2015,” he says. “A bowel problem made him stay in the hospital for five months and undergo five surgeries. With each intervention, I knew I was running the risk of losing him”.
Dealing with the newborn’s imminent death was the height of his suffering, he says. “In a way, I got calloused for what came next. I wasn’t afraid of dying, but rather of losing the people I love”, says Nogueira, who also claims to have been shaken by the social tragedies of this period – such as the attack on the day care center in Saudades (SC) and the death of actor Paulo Gustavo.
Psychologist Betânia Tanure says that it is essential that everyone finds within themselves the psychic mechanisms to survive the pandemic. “Many leaders until the beginning of the pandemic thought they were invincible. But they found out that mortality is part of life,” she says.
Nogueira, who didn’t exercise, started running every morning and walking to work, which gave him a new lease of life. Patricia, on the other hand, tried, unsuccessfully, medications to overcome the numbness in her left arm – a symptom that only ended after yoga became a daily practice. Jorge, in turn, started therapy to learn to deal with his frustrations and limitations.
“The process of self-knowledge has never been so important: it is necessary to recognize your strengths and reduce the blind spots, those in which you do not recognize that you have a problem”, says Betânia.
Taking care of yourself is critical not just for the individual, but for the future of organizations, she says. “The competitiveness of a company lies in people’s passion for what they do,” he says.
“A leader who is not feeling good about himself cannot engage the team. And we are living in a time when people have all the real excuses for not playing their role well.”