Senn’s death late last week, which came three years after the suicide of another Zurich Insurance executive, CFO Pierre Wauthier, is said to have been a result of stress after he “quit the insurer under a cloud,” according to The Financial Times. But there are things executives can do to keep stress from reaching levels that might induce self-harm.
1. Identify real stressors. Significant CEO stress arises “from the extreme complexities and ambiguities inherent in a boss’ world,” industrial and organizational psychologist Douglas McKenna, Ph.D., told Forbes. But “sometimes (leaders) may not realize what their real source of stress is.” For example, McKenna said, CEOs may “get carried away fighting a customer service problem,” but “it’s really just the straw that broke the camel’s back, when the real issue is marital distress.” McKenna said he tells almost all stressed-out leaders to start out by “expanding the picture and looking broadly at their lives to recognize all the pressures on them.” Then, they can “more easily start thinking and reasoning clearly, free of stress.”
While some CEOs “muscle through just about everything and continue to do the job,” McKenna noted, such an approach is finite. Those CEOs who best manage stress, he believes, neutralize threats (stressors) by “stretching them out over long timelines, making them part of a strategic landscape to ultimately detoxify them.”
2. Act—don’t react. Feeling that situations are out of one’s control activates stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, and, if long-term, destroys confidence, concentration and well-being, wrote business psychologist Sharon Melnick, Ph.D., in her book Success Under Stress. Melnick suggested that in every potentially stressful situation, CEOs should identify those aspects they can control (like their own response to an accusation from a board member) and those they cannot (such as that board member’s raised tone of voice in a meeting.) Be impeccable for your (part),” Melnick advised, “and try to let go of the rest.”
3. Join a peer group. For obvious reasons, CEOs cannot discuss the subject of their stress with colleagues. However, other CEOs are a perfect outlet for expressing emotions and garnering support—and a peer group or network is the best place to find them. The best peer groups are comprised of CEOs from a range of markets, as they often can provide the most objective perspective on stressful issues, according to Fortune. But regardless of in which industries members of CEO peer groups work, “once execs see they’re not the only ones with profound anxiety, it’s a relief,” Erik Schreter, CEO of Venwise and a big fan of such groups, told the magazine. (Find out more about how peer groups can help, here.)
4. Engage an executive coach. An executive coach may also act as an effective sounding board for CEOs, in turn easing some of the loneliness they experience at the top. Such a trusted advisor can help leaders successfully navigate the ins and outs of professional and personal life alike, keeping stress low and burnout at bay, executive coach Bill Cole, MS, MA, founder and CEO, William B. Cole Consultants, wrote in The Mental Game Coach Peak Performance Playbook.
5. Meditate. Tupperware CEO E.V. “Rick” Goings tries to meditate for at least 20 minutes every afternoon. Goings told The Financial Times that in addition to “burning off” stress by forcing him to stop focusing on his worries, such a practice offers an ancillary benefit by giving him “fresh eyes to clarify what’s going on and what really matters.”
When the now-retired Robert J. Freedman was CEO of ORC Worldwide, he took two minutes every morning to draw a “whimsical, musing sketch” on the paper napkin that came with his coffee, Forbes reported. “That meditative moment” helped to clear his head for the day to come and, more importantly, gave him “a sense of renewal and calm,” Freedman told the magazine.
5. Exercise regularly. Exercise reduces adrenaline and cortisol levels, according to the Harvard Health newsletter. It also stimulates the production of endorphins—chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. “Endorphins are responsible for the ‘runner’s high’ and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts—or, at least, the hot shower after your exercise is over,” the newsletter said.
Devote time to family and leisure pursuits. Removing yourself from the CEO’s chair and disconnecting from work to focus on your family and participate in activities you enjoy also encourages endorphin production while reducing cortisol levels. Moreover, “regularly following stress-immunization activities” yields CEOs the ability to bounce back from stress and take charge of new stressful circumstances as they arise.
6. Eat and sleep well. You may think skipping meals, “grazing” at your desk, and sleeping very few hours each night will allow you to better endure stress by handling whatever is causing it, but without proper meals and rest, this will never happen. Melnick advocates a low-sugar, high-protein diet. If racing thoughts prevent you from falling asleep or you cannot get back to sleep after awakening in the middle of the night, try covering your right nostril—and breathe only through your left for three to five minutes. This trick should knock you out fast—and keep you knocked out until morning, Melnick claimed.
It’s impossible for CEOs to remove all stress from their lives and to avoid feelings of failure should a stressful situation become such a “hot button” that the media is watching your every move. However, taking steps to minimize stress is still the healthiest approach. And remember, there is always someone to talk to.