Five Stress Management Tools for Successful CEOs

April 17, 2024
Sarah Brown
Partner & Head of Operations

Most people can rhyme off the go-to stress management tools: sleep, eating well, exercising daily, balancing work, enjoying life. Then why don’t we just do them? It’s reductive to say the answer is just choose to do it—it’s not solely a matter of willpower or knowledge of facts. 

As high-capacity individuals, CEOs often report that they find it difficult to slow down, prioritize their physical health, and keep practices that reinforce their mental health. Underneath the healthy drive to do, there is a great deal of unhealthy anxiety from the pressure to perform—and be perceived as performing—at the highest level. Everyone has stress to manage, but there are some unique obstacles for the executives we speak with. Here are five stress management tools for CEOs, including the specific obstacles that make them tricky, and our suggestions for how to overcome those obstacles.

Stress Management Tool 1: Sleep

The Obstacle: When there aren’t enough hours in the day, we steal them from the night. Most CEOs clock about 6.7 hours of the recommended 7-9 (with some practicing “extreme” habits of a mere 4-5 hours). Remember, 7 is the minimum for optimal health and functioning. 

Stress has a long-term negative effect on one’s health, but sleep has long-term positive effects. Regularly being able to wake up from sleep feeling rested can have a notable effect on stress and mental health even up to 3 years in the future.

Overcome: Sleep is an investment with both short-term and long-term effects; you need it to lead live well. Try this:

  • Prioritize sleep and create a personalized sleep routine. Include turning off screens, meditating, reading for pleasure, breathing exercises, etc., all done at a consistent time. Stick to it so your body (and brain) learns when it is time to shut down. 
  • Shift how you and your board measure your performance. Are the KPIs clear and being tracked/reported? Having the confidence that you and the board both share the same expectations of your role and know where you are at can make a big difference to (literally) helping you sleep at night. 

Stress Management Tool 2: Healthy Eating

The Obstacle: You’re too busy to sit down and eat, much less plan and prepare ahead of time. Skipping meals has a cascade effect: You’re tired, then grumpy, then comfort-seeking, then overeating, then opting for less healthy choices. This vicious cycle doesn’t alleviate your stress, it worsens it. 

That you eat matters; what you eat matters too. According to Harvard Business Review, Food has a direct impact on your cognitive performance.” A meal or snack, for example, can either boost focus and provide sustained energy or it can leave you feeling groggy, unable to concentrate, and irritable. Food also has a direct impact on your mood

Overcome: Eat! Try this: 

  • Train your body to eat on a somewhat predictable schedule and don’t compromise. Food and drink trigger your body’s clock and energy rhythms: respect your own productivity and stop making your body guess at when/what it will eat next.
  • Decide what you are going to eat before you are hungry. Consider having small, strategic snacks on hand if a meal isn’t feasible.
  • Have nourishing food available at work. That can mean company-wide, but also accessible for you.  
  • Source ready-made or deliverable options that “magically” appear at mealtime. Consider it an exercise in delegation that lets someone else be the hero. Remember, you can delegate meal prep and delivery; you cannot delegate sleep. 

Stress Management Tool 3: Daily Exercise

The Obstacle: Mindset, rather than schedule, is the real hurdle here. Some CEOs schedule exercise and never skip leg day. Others don’t. If you’re struggling in this area, ask if it’s a case of being too busy or if you are putting finding your best pattern for fitness/health too far down your to-do list.

Overcome: Treat exercise like you do your business. Try this:

  • Schedule it. Set goals. Track it. Metrics and achievements feel good!
  • Reframe it. Regular exercise doesn’t have to be running 10k at lunch. It can also be standing up for a minute or so every hour, stretching, walking around your office while you’re on a call, or choosing the stairs. Think about exercising for health and mobility versus physique to make these small steps worthwhile. Don’t commit to something you hate. Find something that fits you, and commit to it.
  • Use an app, a trainer, or a fitness buddy as the feedback mechanism you need to stay motivated and push further. 

Stress Management Tool 4: Managing Your Workload 

The Obstacle: A great day at work includes healthy stress—good stress that you can rest and recover from. However, when we treat unending stress as a “given” it denies the possibility of healthy stress management. Just because other CEOs are making the same mistakes with their own health and life doesn’t mean you need to. Shooting yourself in the foot every day because it’s normal doesn’t make it reasonable or a good idea. 

If you’re saying things like, “it’s busy, but things aren’t that bad”, nothing changes. Certainly, you won’t get outside help to manage that bad stress. Finding the right people who could help and building those relationships will appear too overwhelming, too time-consuming… too stressful. 

Overcome: Every leader, without exception, is compromised when they don’t have helpful peers, mentors, and coaches. It’s not about the stress being “bad enough” to warrant help. It’s about the compounding (and often unexpected) possibility of getting even better. Sourcing this help is work at the beginning, yes! But it is an investment of your time and energy that pays dividends in breaking the stress cycle in the long-term, enhancing the quality of your work and your experience of work.

Try this:

  • Clarify your actual priorities. For 2-4 weeks, write down everything you do. Put a stroke through the things you should immediately stop doing. Highlight the things you should continue doing. Take a different colour pen and write down the things you should start doing. Afterwards (but not during), go through the list (with a coach or peer!) and consider actions that will make your next month more focused without any balls being dropped.
  • Lean on mentors, peers, or coaches who can help you reflect, check your blindspots, and formulate action plans to take your leadership to the next level. (We connect executives with coaches regularly.)
  • Leverage the wisdom and the power of these relationships to create your own inner circle. There is nothing more stressful than isolation; rather, this connection will help push you and your company forward.
  • Remember your “why”: why did you choose this career path in the first place? Go back to the vision you have for your organization and find ways to keep that front and centre. 

Stress Management Tool 5: Enjoying Life 

The Obstacle: What happens “off the clock” should help mitigate other stress and create that necessary reset, but that’s not often the case. Particularly if your stress and time have not always been balanced, it’s common for family-work conflict to rise and resentment of your schedule and responsibilities to become an ugly cloud hanging over the home. Many years ago, we interviewed over 40 successful CEOs, and all of them reported their marriage had broken down. With these kinds of dynamics, it can be difficult to allow yourself to lower your guard and be vulnerable at home. Making your home, hobbies, and relationships safe places that give life back to you requires investment, and that is impossible if you arrive home having already given 100% of yourself to your work. 

Overcome: Be as self-aware at home as you are at work. What if you made it a goal to be a happy, healthy human, not just a competent, respected businessperson? You can be both, but the second is always going to choke out the first if not checked. Try this: 

  • Build a sound team so you can weave in and out of work/life in a way that allows you to maximize productivity, rest and recharge, and live a life that makes it all worthwhile. 
  • Customize the “how” to your needs and values: Schedule priorities like vacations, one-on-one time with children/partner, family events, etc. ahead—months or even years if you have to. 
  • Be present where you are, when you are there. What specific techniques will be most effective for you in creating balance?

Stress Isn’t Weakness

Obstacles are opportunities for growth—opportunities you can seize with a trusted coach. Stress isn’t a failure or weakness, it’s just the red light alerting you to a need. If the thought of all this stress management is, well, stressful, let a coach help you navigate forward with confidence, accountability, and confidentiality. Connect with OrgHealth to learn more and find a coach who is right for you.

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