Work / Life Balance

Dealing with stress as an executive

CEO and executive stress

If you’re a CEO or other high-ranking executive, you know that stress comes with the job title.

While it’s impossible to eliminate stress entirely, there are actionable ways to reduce it. Here, we share some strategies for dealing with CEO and executive stress.

A tsunami of stress

In addition to the specific stresses of their jobs, executives are affected by a range of outside factors. “CEOs feel a set of pressures that most of them have never seen in their career,” says David Lyon, a Vistage Chair and former head of a digital marketing company.

These pressures include lingering effects stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and geopolitical events occurring across the globe, Lyon says. He describes these factors as “inextricably linked” to the stress that many CEOs experience.

“When you get a tsunami — this perfect storm of five, six, seven of these major things going on — it can become pretty stressful,” Lyon adds.

Why CEO and executive stress is dangerous

Stress is part of life, and for executives and high-performing individuals, it’s never going to go away completely. But it’s crucial to manage and reduce stress when you can.

A 2021 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that CEOs’ lifespans decreased by 1.5 years solely due to the stress of an economic downturn.

Ron Ferguson, a Vistage Chair and previous executive at an industrial equipment supplier, explains that CEOs’ stress negatively impacts “mental fitness, physical well-being and how they interact with others.”

As a cancer survivor, Ferguson also shares that his illness was hormonal-dependent and was partly fueled by the amount of stress he experienced during his career. “Stress manifests itself in our bodies, whether we acknowledge it or not,” he says.

5 ways CEOs and executives can tackle stress

We know the toll stress takes on your physical, mental and emotional health, but addressing it is often easier said than done. Here are five ways CEOs and executives can mitigate stress.

1. Know that you’re not alone

Connecting with a person or group you can share your worries with can help identify and manage your major stressors.

“If you think about the CEO role,” says Lyon, “the adage can be true — it’s lonely at the top.”

He continues, “A lot of stress comes from feeling isolated and feeling alone.” Lyon recommends surrounding yourself with a community of people you can trust.

Ferguson agrees. “It’s amazing when someone will bring something up in a group, and they think they’re the only one dealing with this. And all of a sudden, they start to hear from others, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so happy you brought that up.’”

2. Write it down

When Ferguson struggled with stress during the Great Recession, he discovered a strategy based on writing down his fears. “I wrote down every fear, and I didn’t judge them. Throughout the next couple of days, I looked at every fear and asked myself, ‘Okay, is this real, or is this just in my head?’”

He found that nine of the ten fears he recorded “had a very low chance of ever happening.”

Ferguson points out that writing down what you’re afraid of takes away some of the power fear has over us. Aside from realizing that many of your concerns are unlikely to occur, this exercise can help you stop dwelling on things outside of your control.

3. Take care of your body

Sufficient sleep, exercise and a healthy diet can have a profound effect on how well you handle stress. If you’re exhausted, for example, you’re more likely to be triggered by a seemingly mundane event.

Lyon shares that he knows CEOs who sleep for four hours per night. “I think there’s a real cost in terms of the quality of their leadership and the experience they’re having of being a business owner — and their experience of life in general.”

Implementing a healthy habit often has a domino effect. Lyon says that when he exercises, he sleeps and eats better.

There is also technology that can help executives stay on top of their health. Ferguson uses Whoop, a health-focused wearable that tracks stress, sleep and other biometric data.

4. Identify your triggers

One way to address stress is to understand what your triggers are. Triggers are situations or events that lead to increased stress, and they’re different for everyone.

If you understand your triggers, you can either avoid them or intentionally use coping mechanisms when these situations occur.

Lyon believes that many triggers are related to fear, including the Four Fatal Fears defined by psychologist Maxie Maultsby, which include the fear of failure, being wrong, rejection and facing uncomfortable emotions. When these fears arise, stress is triggered. Lyon says that just being aware of your fears makes a big difference.

5. Pivot careers

One powerful way to reduce stress is by considering a different career path. The key here is to find a satisfying, fulfilling role where you can still make a difference while experiencing less day-to-day burden.

Both Ferguson and Lyon have found this balance as Vistage Chairs. Lyon shares that he has control “over the throttle and accelerator” as an executive coach. He can scale his business up or down based on his needs.

Ferguson says stress doesn’t get to him as a Chair, which he credits to connecting with people and helping leaders be their best selves. “I don’t feel the stress,” he says. “I just feel a profound sense of joy.”

Make caring for yourself a priority

Many CEOs and executives put the needs of their employees, their business and their families before their own. When it comes to handling stress, one essential step is to learn to make caring for yourself a priority.

Addressing your stress by maintaining your health, connecting with others or changing careers won’t just make you feel better, it’ll ensure you can be the best version of yourself as a leader.

Related Resources

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About the Author: Vistage Staff

Vistage facilitates confidential peer advisory groups for CEOs and other senior leaders, focusing on solving challenges, accelerating growth and improving business performance. Over 45,000 high-caliber execu

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