10 realistic ways for CEOs to improve their mental health

ceo mental health man rests on bench

Today’s executives are expected to be superhuman — they must be many things to many people, which often leads to extraordinary amounts of stress and anxiety. Contributors to a CEO’s stress may include the pressure of answering to their stakeholders, the risks they must calculate to get their businesses ahead, their constant vigilance to trends and changes in the economy, or personal life circumstances.

This May for Mental Health Awareness Month, I’d like to focus on CEO mental health and wellness. As a former CEO and now Vistage speaker on the subject of mental wellness, I work to eliminate the stigma that often goes with it. I encounter executives and business owners who are reticent to admit they could benefit from mental health support. The truth is executives can absolutely mitigate stress and anxiety to achieve better mental and emotional wellness. The first step is to admit to the struggle, and next, develop the tactics to minimize the effects on our lives and organizations.

My story

I suffered from major depressive disorder for most of my life, including 30 years as a CEO; stress and anxiety were major contributors to the disorder.

Most of my professional life was spent projecting the outward appearance of a confident, focused, and positive leader — the opposite of how I felt inside.

If I had been authentic, humble, and vulnerable, I would have been honest about my condition. Thanks to therapy, I learned late in life that a routine, including both physical and mental components, is the key to good mental health, regardless of whether you struggle with a mental illness or not. Look at a routine as building up physical and mental muscle to combat stress.


How CEOs can recognize signs of mental health issues in themselves

For many CEOs, 2020 was likely the year stress and anxiety played a significant role in performance.

Some signs of mental health issues include feelings of fatigue, irritability, worry, isolation or rumination (continuously thinking about the same negative thoughts). Sudden changes in mood, sleep problems, substance abuse, changes in weight or appetite or withdrawing from normal life activities are also signs that should call your attention. If you experience any of the above consistently beyond two weeks, it may be time to proactively seek support.

Key components of a healthy routine for mental well-being

Self-care habits are absolutely vital for the CEO’s mental health and overall well-being. Take any of the following practices for a fresh daily wellness routine.

1. Exercise

This does not necessarily mean a gym membership — feel good about doing a simple thirty-minute run or walk each day.

2. Mindfulness

Staying focused on the present moment is the first step of a mindfulness practice. Become aware of your reactions to stressful situations, and don’t fall prey to rumination and daydreaming. Mind wandering? Take three to five deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth.

3. Visualization

During the morning run/walk, visualize the plan for your day; see and feel the outcomes you want.

4. Meditation

Meditation is a powerful tool to start the day. All you need is 10 minutes in a quiet, uninterrupted environment. Use guided meditation apps such as breethe and calm to get started.

5. Nutrition

Inventory your eating habits. A cup of coffee for breakfast, a burrito for lunch, and then a 16-ounce ribeye for dinner does not form a nutritious diet. Consume three balanced and timely meals a day, balancing carbs, sugar and proteins.

6. Replenish

Replace those numerous cups of coffee with water. After all, as humans, we are 90% water. Replenishment is necessary to keep optimum energy levels.

7. Gratitude

Studies have shown expressing gratitude for those you love and admire is a powerful activity to trigger positive neurotransmitters.

8. Self-Compassion

Don’t be so hard on yourself; you’re doing the best you can. Do something for yourself daily.

9. Relationships

Don’t suffer fools. Spend time with those who stimulate, challenge and inspire you. And tell your partner you love them.

10. Journal

Writing down your thoughts and emotions can help you process difficult events, release yourself from thinking traps, and increase your self-awareness. By simply putting your thoughts onto paper, you are externalizing emotions — that alone may help you to feel lighter. I’d suggest utilizing a tool such as the 5 -Second Journal as it incorporates both mental well-being and daily leadership business routines.


My favorite practices include gratitude, exercise and meditation. Discover which of the above you will enjoy most.

It is a truism that the mental wellness of the organization is a reflection of the mental wellness of the CEO. Take the time to nurture a mentally stronger you, and see the positive effects of that effort trickle out to your leadership team and your employees.

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About the Author: John Panigas

John Panigas is a Vistage speaker with 40 years of entrepreneurial leadership and 20 years as the CEO of the largest retail construction organization in Canada, while struggling with crippling depression. For the l

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