Battling CEO burnout: Advice from leaders in development, healthcare on staying at 100%

Tired/Sleeping Businessman - nyul/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Burnout equates to less productivity at work. (Image: nyul/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

Being a CEO is a tough job that requires extra care to avoid the possibility of burning out. It takes coping strategies and then some, ranging from exercise to brief breaks to spending time with other CEOs to commiserate with kindred spirits.

“CEOs who manage their stress best understand that they are in a marathon and not a sprint, said Bonnie Hagemann, CEO of Executive Development Associates. “They schedule their vacations and they take them with little interaction with the office.”

They also benefit from regular exercise, Hagemann said.

Hagemann said she knows a CEO who takes time out of the middle of the day, three times a week, to swim at the local university. “It’s a great time to rejuvenate even in the middle of the day,” Hagemann said. “He probably works 50 to 60 hours a week but he’s been a successful CEO for over 25 years.” 

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It’s also important “to be 100% wherever you are, so if you are at work be 100% at work without the mental distractions of home and outside life, and if you’re at home be 100% at home without the mental distraction of work,” Hagemann said. 

Mark Magnacca, president of Allego, stays motivated “by being very structured about how I get work done. I divide up my days into three different categories or types, and I know that in any given week or month, I need a mix of all three to be most productive.”

There are buffer days, which include meeting prep/research as well as travel time; focus days, which consist of in-person meetings and calls; and free days, “which are weekend or relaxation days where I spend time with my family,” Magnacca said. “For me personally, there’s a sweet spot comprised of all three that makes me the most productive. Too many focus days in a row and I’m not adequately prepped for my next meeting, or conversely, too many days in a row without a free day and I start to feel burnt out and less productive professionally.”

Liz Bywater, president of Bywater Consulting, recommends:

  • Focus on the right things. Make sure you consider every activity and request through a strategic lens: Is this something I, as the CEO, should do myself, or is it to be delegated to my team? Is it an action that will move the company forward, or can it be taken out of consideration? Is the impact worth the effort? Only say yes to truly important, strategic, high level activities. 
  • When you are on vacation, be on vacation. Set boundaries that allow you to truly decompress and re-energize during your time away from the office. Assign delegates to handle minor emergencies and give them clear instructions on when and how to reach you (only if truly urgent). Don’t check your email all day, every day.
  • Meet with other CEOs. Form relationships with other top executives in noncompeting industries and get together regularly to freely discuss top challenges and opportunities. You will learn a great deal from others while gaining valuable distance and perspective.
  • Find something you love, and do it. Whether it is engaging in exercise, philanthropy, gardening, walking the dog, or spending time with friends, do things you that make you smile and pull you away from the everyday pressure of running a business.

Glen Allsopp, CEO of takes “forced breaks” a few times every year.

“I don't necessarily mean taking a vacation or even travelling anywhere new, but just hitting a certain deadline or project goal and then forcing myself to retreat from work and the computer for the next two to three weeks,” Allsopp said. “These breaks are always hard, as I absolutely love what I do, but I know how valuable they are for my health so each year I make sure I schedule a few of these, most often after completing a large project such as a new website launch.”

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“In my 15 years as a life coach, I have seen firsthand that CEO burnout is alive and well,” said Lisa Haisha. “It is easily the number one killer of productivity, health and happiness.”  Here are a few ways Haisha recommends avoiding it:

  • Learn to delegate without micromanaging.  Take the time to hire the right person who is capable of the task you give them so you can have confidence it will be handled correctly.  Many CEOs oversee everything and feel no one is capable of getting the job done right unless they contribute.  However, the opposite is usually true.  The more a CEO meddles, the more stress is put on the person who is responsible for getting their project done.  It will also free up time for the CEO to focus on other things.
  • Most CEOs say they don’t have time to rest. "There are so many studies that show if you’re not rested, you will not function properly.  All my clients express we are in the midst of a sleep deprivation crisis. If you don’t get enough rest, you will make poor decisions and lose focus which causes anxiety, depression and a slew of other disorders that eventually lead to burn out."
  • Most the time food is a source of comfort when stressed out.  CEOs generally have many lunch and dinner meetings.  That means they are usually drinking and eating heavy food, and also drinking alcohol.  When stressed, eating lighter and cleaner is the solution. It will help increase energy and contribute toward a clear head.

Scott Beck, CEO of CHG Healthcare, advises, “decide where you want to win. A few years ago, I realized I was doing great at my jobbut I wasn’t doing a good job at home. I realized that I wanted to be able to win at all three of my jobsas the CEO, as a husband, and as a dad. To win at home, I needed to spend more time with my kids. So instead of trying to be the first one into the office each day, I made it a priority to eat breakfast with my kids instead. I did the same thing on the other end of my schedule. I made a commitment to my wife that I’d be home from work in time for dinner every night. Making those two small adjustments played a big role in helping me find more balance in my life.”

Beck also advises making time for oneself. “Whenever I can, I like to spend time outdoorswhether that’s biking, running, hiking or just eating dinner outside,” Beck said. “It’s certainly good for my health, but where I see the most benefit is in my mind. That quiet time gives me a chance to recharge and the space to come up with new ideas.”

At work, build a great team around you, Beck said. “Hiring great leaders, setting high expectations and empowering them to own their work is one of the most important ways to fight off burnout. When you surround yourself with a great team, you don’t have to carry the stress of managing all the details and you can focus your attention on the bigger picture instead.”

There is also the new age approach.

"When I am in an unwanted feeling and my anxiety is rising, or negative emotions are coming in, I immediately stop my thoughtseven in a meetingshut my eyes, and boost my internal energy up for just a moment,” said Cricket Lee, CEO of Fitlogic. “I can take a few deep breaths and usually the whole conversation inside meand everyone around meshifts.”
If the negativity persists, “I stop and meditate for a bit until I can feel new elevated energyand then my day or night is better all the way around,” Lee said. “This kind of application changes my life day by day and it gets easier and easier to shift and stay there. You can never burn out if you do only what you love.”