How the Best CEOs Improve Their Mental Health and Acuity

Worker burnout and employee mental health are all over the news and have been for some time, and many partly attribute the current labor shortage to the widespread burnout that is evident across the economy. In fact, a 2021 survey by McKinsey & Company found that nearly half (49%) of workers are feeling at least somewhat burned out—and McKinsey itself believes that, for several reasons, this is likely a dramatic underrepresentation of the real number. For one, the consulting firm notes that employees experiencing burnout are less likely to respond to survey requests in general, for obvious reasons. In addition, the most burned-out individuals may have already left the workforce—as have many women, who have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis and often have had to leave their jobs to care for family members at home.

In its own study of worker burnout, Visier found that of 1,000 surveyed full-time employees across the U.S., 89% of respondents had experienced burnout in the past year, and 27% said they experience burnout “all the time.”

Worker burnout was already reaching crisis levels before the pandemic, and now it has only gotten worse. Yet for all the talk of burnout, the burnout affecting CEOs—and their mental health in general, not to mention their mental acuity—are rarely, if ever, discussed.

In a way, this makes sense. There are, after all, far fewer CEOs than there are all other employees. But that does not mean it is any less of a crisis. In fact, the two are inextricably linked. It may sound trite, but all aspects of a company flow from the chief executive. Thus, if the CEO’s mental health is not in a good state and their mental acuity is dulled, then the entire company—its direction, responses to changes in the market, and internal policies—will be negatively affected, and this directly impacts employees and their own mental health.

There is often a stigma around mental health, and acknowledging its importance, or that you may need help with it, is commonly seen as a sign of weakness. However, the best CEOs recognize that taking care of their mental health and maximizing their mental acuity is essential to the success of their companies.

Therefore, the first step in a CEO’s journey toward improving their mental health is admitting that it is a struggle—and an important one that is worth addressing head-on.

CEOs have to be many things to many people. They must answer to stakeholders, keep their company in good standing in the eyes of the public, and maintain the health of the company for the sake of the jobs of its employees. This is enough to give anyone anxiety.

But there are tactics to cope with and overcome the stress and anxiety inherent in the role of CEO. So after admitting that mental health is important, the next step is coming up with a plan. How will you work to improve and then maintain your mental health?

Most experts agree on a few things that will help with anyone’s mental health:

  • Exercise: Getting some form of exercise every day, whether it is an intense CrossFit session every morning like former CEO of Twitter Dick Costolo, or a simple 30-minute walk, has been proven to reduce anxiety, depression, and negative mood and improve self-esteem and cognitive function.
  • Good nutrition: An inadequate diet can lead to fatigue and impaired decision-making and directly contribute to poor mental health. Not all foods work for all people, even if they are commonly considered to be “healthy.” Be mindful of what you eat, and if you always feel lethargic or dull-witted after eating a certain food, then cut it from your diet. That food is no good for you.
  • Mindfulness and meditation: Many CEOs meditate to help clear their minds and give them a break from problem-solving, which allows them to come back refreshed and ready to tackle new challenges. Leaders like Marc Benioff, Ray Dalio, and Bill Gates have all extolled the benefits of meditation. But even if meditation seems like too big of a mountain to climb at the very beginning, just doing simple breathing exercises throughout the day—like taking three to five deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth when things get particularly stressful—can make us more mindful and less anxious.
  • Sleep: Getting enough sleep is crucial for mental health. Lack of sleep can have negative effects like lack of awareness, impaired memory and judgment, and elevated blood pressure, among many others. While the Cleveland Clinic recommends adults get 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, everyone is different. But if you are waking up tired, rest assured you need more sleep.
  • Set boundaries: One of the top perks of being a boss is that you get to set your own schedule. You don’t have to clock in or clock out, and no one will reprimand you if you’re late to work. Use this to your advantage, and set strict work/life boundaries for yourself—and for the rest of your company as well. Just because everyone is now reachable every second of the day does not mean you—or they—have to be. Being constantly in work mode is a surefire way to burn yourself—or anyone—out in a hurry. Schedule your nonnegotiables (workouts, family time, vacations) in ahead of time, schedule your work hours, and stick to them. And when it’s time to sleep, turn your phone off and actually sleep.

The preceding list is comprised entirely of steps CEOs can take on their own to improve their mental health. The following tactics require the help of others:

  • Hire a therapist: The benefits of a therapist are many and varied. They don’t know you and therefore carry no preconceptions about who you are. They are non-judgmental and are required to keep your secrets. And, they are trained to help you make sense of your life. They can help you put your struggles into perspective and figure out how to overcome them, and they can help you recognize from an objective point of view things about yourself that you never realized and that may be holding you back.
  • Find a mentor: Every employee could use someone who is experienced in their role to show them the ropes, teach them how to be successful, and help them avoid mistakes. The same is true for CEOs. Unfortunately, most CEOs don’t have a mentor who has been in the same or similar position and who they can go to for advice and wise counsel. However, those people do exist. Maybe it’s another executive within the company. Maybe it’s a retired CEO. Maybe it’s a CEO from another company. But barring that…
  • Hire an executive coach: So you can’t readily find a mentor. Not a problem. There are plenty of experienced executive coaches out there. It’s almost like having a therapist, but purely for business-related matters. They can help guide you through the process of becoming a better leader and help you tap into your natural strengths and the parts of your personality that will serve you best in your role.
  • Join a CEO peer group: CEO peer groups place you with a group of other leaders and a facilitator who is typically a seasoned CEO. Group members are able to share their challenges and successes with one another and gain insights from what others are going through. Experiencing this collective wisdom allows CEOs to get out of the tumult within their own heads and tackle challenges with others who understand them.
  • Socialize: Everyone needs time away from work, and everyone needs to socialize away from the office. This is more important now than ever, after many were cooped up at home during the global pandemic. All it takes is a talk with a friend or spending some time with your family to raise serotonin levels, relax your mind, and give it a break from the struggles of work so it can come back refreshed.

Mental health is important—whether you work at a company or run the company. By utilizing the proven tactics laid out above, CEOs can improve their mental health and maintain it for the long haul, and in so doing, they can relieve themselves of some of the stress and anxiety dulling their mental acuity, thereby benefiting themselves, their employees, and their companies.