Preventing CEO Burnout

John, the CEO of a mid-size family company, has been putting in 90-hour workweeks for 11 months.  Between the tight economy, an aggressive new competitor, and several family dramas, his taking a vacation now has been out of the question.  It is hard for John to get to sleep; it is even harder for him to stay asleep, and his brain turns off only after several cocktails before going to bed.  John knows that he can’t continue this pattern, but he doesn’t know how to stop, or frankly, what else to do.

One night recently, he woke up gasping for air.  John and his wife thought that he might be having a heart attack and frantically called 911.  As they waited for the ambulance’s arrival, several heavy thoughts registered in a back corner of John’s mind.  He was simultaneously afraid and relieved:  Afraid . . . This is it!  I’m going to die.  And yes, relieved:  Why, if I were to survive the heart attack, I might actually get a break!

At the ER, the medical team conducted blood tests and monitored his heart.  After several hours, the team informed John that he had experienced a panic attack.  He was given two prescriptions and encouraged to check in with his primary care physician as soon as possible. The first prescription was for four days worth of Clonazepam, a benzodiazepine that immediately quiets the brain, but is very addictive.  Also, the ER doctor prescribed Celexa, an antidepressant that aids in reducing anxiety.

The experience stunned John.  “I’m not the sort of guy who has panic attacks!”  Then, dozens of other questions came:  What does this mean? . . .  Am I not cut out for this level of leadership? . . .  Am I failing and don’t know it? . . . How can I take care of the company and my family, if I am not a strong leader? . . .

After taking a couple of days off, “due to a family emergency,” John returned to work and to the stress that comes with being a man who has many people depending on him and great responsibilities.  Soon, getting access to another Clonazepam tablet became a daily matter for him - a disturbing and frightening concern because he has seen other family members struggle with addictions to prescription drugs.  He called his family physician whose only suggestion was to take time off.

On Tuesday, May 7, 2013. The Wall Street Journal published Leslie Kwoh’s article “When the CEO Burns Out.”  She listed fatigue, resentment, and loneliness as causes for burnout.  She gave examples of well-known companies that have lost valuable leadership, when men and women took vacations and/or left to recover physically and mentally.   As remedies. she suggests time off and medications, as needed.

Wait a minute.  We can do better than that!  CEO and C-suite executives do not burn out.  Their brains and bodies do! These same brains and bodies begin to break down when they are exposed to chronic stress.  A common symptom of CEO breakdown caused by chronic stress is loss of a person’s ability to focus. 

In prudent organizations today, leaders understand that executive brains and their physical well-being are the most important assets of any venture.  Therefore, owners and boards of directors anticipate their organization’s needs; after all, they are used to essential scheduled maintenance on machines.  It’s required for all human assets too!

The idea is a sound one.  Therefore, it doesn’t take long for someone to ask: What should be included in an organization’s prevention plan for executive burnout?  At a minimum plans should include:

 1.    Instilling in your corporate culture the behaviors that increase the body’s ability to cope with stress.  These tenants are eight hours of sleep, 30 minutes of exercise daily, and at least three meals with protein and vegetables per day. 

 2.   Insisting on time away:  Our brains function better when we take time away from complexity and sameness.  Rest, relaxation, and discontinuous time and activities produce fresh perspectives - essential in thinking strategically.

 3.  Scheduling annual physical examinations with primary care physicians for C-suite executives.  Metrics of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and weight gain are symptoms of a body not handling stress well.

Rather than being surprised and in crisis when an executive must step out or step down, which is extremely costly, why not create a preventive maintenance plan for key executives in your organization?