Over the past 20 months with various stages of lockdown throughout Australia, a great toll has been taken on workplaces of all shapes and sizes.

The weight of leadership for executives has been heavy as people look to their senior managers to provide guidance, reassurance and motivation through these uncertain times.

Not only have leaders had to shoulder the burden of ensuring businesses can continue to operate in changing conditions, but they have also had to ensure their people are ‘ok’ and able to function as part of a broader team. These are huge asks of people who are not trained mental health professionals or counsellors, yet it has somehow become an assumed part of their job description.

Leaders give a lot of themselves through their work life. Many describe gaining energy from the environment and people surrounding them. It is little wonder, therefore, that many senior leaders are feeling the toll of working through the COVID-19 pandemic, that has seen them working from home, isolated from teams without the ability to organically begin conversations with those around them.

Many leaders to whom we have looked in the past for inspiration and affirmation are themselves feeling “flat,” “tired,” and “over it.” Some have even described their current working from home life as a “cave-like syndrome.” They go into a room early in the morning to face a day of on-line meetings, then emerge later that night.

With no commute in between, there is little to no opportunity for quiet self-reflection or ‘wind down’ time. Their feet drag them from the work environment to the home environment in a matter of seconds. Their minds are forced to switch from one to another — which is not an easy thing to do. If they get it wrong, families and friends can feel the brunt of it.

While at the beginning many will admit remote working was novel, close to 2-years later the novelty for many has well and truly worn off.

This is not to say there is no place for working remotely long term. It is saying that without the ability to break up the remote routine, and most importantly, to interact with people, several stimuli have left, and a level of monotony and repetition has made itself at home.

Some psychologists and sociologists have already labelled this state as “languishing”.

The Reddin Group’s managing partner, David Reddin has noticed the shift across industries from even the most extroverted of executives.

“Working across multiple industries and with a myriad of personalities, I have noticed a real change at the top. Many senior leaders, like the rest of us, are really feeling flat. They spend so much time interacting online (far tougher than face-to-face when it’s day in, day out) and asking their people how they are. I think part of this “languishing” or feeling flat is because, quite often, no-one is checking in with the person at the top and asking if they are ok in return.”

“With so many of us having limited movement for such a long period of time now, many connections are falling by the wayside. Without the ability to plan for face-to-face catch ups, the pleasure of the anticipation of ‘getting together’ has been removed and people are retreating into themselves.”

“While catch ups on Zoom or Microsoft Teams were entertaining and even innovative in the beginning, they just don’t seem to cut it anymore. Humans crave real interaction to forge connections and inspire creativity,” David said.

David has also observed that when people do venture back “out into the wild of society ” they often are unsure of how to engage with others.

“The cave syndrome has left many feeling unsure of how to act around others. What some feel is acceptable is not always a view shared by others, and we are left feeling that it is all too hard, so its back into the safety of the cave they go.”

“Others become quite overwhelmed and even emotional when they see people for the first time. It’s actually not surprising given it has been 20 long months of prolonged stress, lockdowns and even periods of self-isolation for some,” he explains.

With so many feeling unsure and with ‘nothing left in the tank,’ what David believes leaders should be doing is setting up casual networks ahead of ‘coming out’ of the COVID haze.

“It is very easy to feel alone and despondent. Reaching out to business networks and going for a walk and talk can sound all too simple, but in these complicated times, it is the simple things that we crave. Getting back to basics can be a good thing,” David said.

“Having a chat with a senior leader, just to bounce ideas and even throw around a bit of light banter helps to break that cycle of monotony. There are plenty of takers out there and you will be surprised at what you can get out of it,” he said.

“Chat groups (like WhatsApp) can also be helpful. For those inclined, there are always cycling or running groups, the point is to talk and to connect with likeminded leaders because I can guarantee you, you are not alone,” David said.

David understands that it’s not a natural thing for everyone to want to do at the moment, but it will be a move that you will find worthwhile.

“My virtual door is always open for anyone wanting to throw around a few ideas,” he said.

Open your virtual door. You never know where it may lead.

David Reddin, partner at Reddin Group, with his beloved dogs