It’s Lonely At The Top In Asia—But It Doesn’t Have To Be
Senior executives leading multinational companies (MNCs) in Singapore can feel left out professionally due to a lack of support from peers and, if in a regional role, their headquarters (HQ). When looking for a solution to loneliness, executives should look to long term and prioritise creating support structures.
Singapore likely has the greatest headcount of regional executives in the region, according to the Economic Development Board (EDB) 1, as 46 per cent of Asian Regional Headquarters (ARHQ) are based in Singapore. Effectively leading these outposts has unique challenges, which the leadership team at HQ may fail to appreciate.
An American research report on loneliness, 2 published in 2020 by health services organisation Cigna, found that executive loneliness was at epidemic level, with 57 per cent of senior executives feeling as if they had no one at work to turn to, and 70 per cent felt that nobody really knew them well.
For a qualitative research study I am conducting for a book I am writing on executive loneliness, I spoke to 55 Regional Directors based in Singapore to understand their own experiences. I found that 30 per cent of respondents are currently, or have been, suffering from depression, and 82 per cent found it difficult to talk about stress and depression in their company.
Navigating Cultural Peculiarities
Although Singapore presents executives with a high standard of living, ease of access to the rest of Asia, excellent medical care, and great, even if costly, education for kids, one key area where Singapore rates poorly on international rankings is work-life balance. 3
Singaporeans are prone to ‘presenteeism’ and making a point of ‘showing face’ by remaining in the office well beyond regular working hours. Many will also think nothing of demonstrating their ‘always on’ approach to work by calling or messaging superiors and colleagues—and expecting an immediate response—in evenings and on weekends.
Despite the low cultural barriers to entry in Singapore, there are still, and at times greater, cultural peculiarities between Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar, Brunei, Laos, and Cambodia for regional executives to get to grips with, even if they have been raised in Singapore.
Executives running the Asian operations of international companies can feel alienated from colleagues at head office, due to the lack of understanding of cultural etiquette in the region from their counterparts at HQ, who don’t understand how business is conducted in Asia. Consequently, regional leaders feel isolated, with no one to turn to for valid advice or informed second opinions.
For expatriates, the challenges are greater. The executive that moves to Asia is typically the sole provider, who is thus responsible for the family’s housing, schooling, and healthcare. To keep the status quo on an even keel at home, the breadwinner is typically reluctant to share their workplace challenges in the home, compounding feelings of isolation.
Curbing Loneliness with Support Structures
Chief Executive Officier (CEOs) face significant challenges. PwC’s 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey 2020 4 reveals a record increase in pessimism among CEOs across Asia Pacific, as they deal with uncertain economic growth, trade conflicts, geopolitical uncertainty, and more.
Psychologists worry that there are signs of a loneliness epidemic spreading across most developed nations. In the United Kingdom, research by the New Economics Foundation 5 estimated that the problem was costing UK businesses £2.5 billion (S$4.33 billion) per year.
Regional firms should prioritise creating a support structure for their executives, which could include social and professional networks, greater autonomy in decision-making, and regular communication with head office on local issues. Equally, CEOs and directors coming to Asia should be briefed on orientation as to how isolation can impact both their personal well-being and performance at work. They should be given the space to prioritise building connections, setting aside time to create a support network for themselves.
It is essential for multinational and regional companies to build a tone of tolerance and understanding of cultural differences to minimise feelings of isolation.
As the Managing Director with EGN (Executives' Global Network) Singapore, Nick is passionate about matching senior executives in confidential peer groups where they can help each other face challenges and identify opportunities. He has worked across Asia, Australia, and Europe representing major international firms and acquired international general management, direct sales and marketing experience. He has also been entrusted to serve as the Vice-Chairman of the Nordic Chamber of Commerce in Ho Chi Minh City and the Vice Chairman of the Direct Selling Committee Vietnam. He is also in the middle of writing a book on this topic, which he plans to publish this year.