Why CEOs Need a Wellness Plan Too

Stress levels at work are higher than ever, as are demands on executives. The path forward starts with acknowledging the difficulties underneath the brave face that leaders are asked to present.

In the past couple of years, leaders have been strongly encouraged to do more to support their employees’ well-being—more mental health days, more support for self-care, a deeper understanding of the struggles people face in remote and hybrid environments. But there’s less conversation about how those issues occupy the C-suite too.

In some ways, that’s understandable—leaders are often asked to present themselves as calm and collected, even if they’re not. But that demand creates its own set of problems. Of course, leaders are stressed, and just as many things in organizations, the stress trickles down if it goes unaddressed. In 2017, an American Heart Association study that found that employee participation in workplace health programs increased when they knew that the CEO themself participated.

So putting up a brave front isn’t just false, it’s counterproductive, and risks eroding an exec’s position. And these days, it comes at a time when leaders are asked to field more challenges than ever. As Heidrick & Struggles partner Sharon Sands wrote last week for the World Economic Forum, many leaders feel trapped under a pile of problems and superhero-like expectations. 

“The post-pandemic requirement for leaders to be financially adept, growth-driving, sector-leading, culturally inclusive, DEI-delivering role models can present a daily decision tree that has a no-win outcome for those at the top,” Sands wrote. 

People were recognizing that before they can be a good leader, they have to be a balanced person.

Magdalena Mook, International Coaching Federation

To address that problem, Sands recommends that organizations get out of what she calls the “perfection paradox,” where organizations raise expectations from CEOs and CEO candidates to the point where the job requirements are almost impossible to fulfill. An association that asks everything of a CEO is almost certainly asking for too much, and has an overly broad set of strategic goals. Moreover, Sands adds, organizations should understand that every C-suite candidate arrives with certain skill gaps. The hiring process “may mean considering candidates who require some degree of upskilling or development in certain areas that may be of increasing or emerging importance,” Sands wrote. 

That can be just as true for people who are already in leadership positions. The pandemic laid leaders’ shortcomings bare; there’s no shame in acknowledging them, and lots to be said for addressing them. This past summer, I interviewed a variety of coaches and coaching experts who discussed the rise not just in the number of executives pursuing coaching but also in growth in what they needed coaching for. As International Coaching Federation CEO Magdalena Mook told me, among coaching clients, “There was a shift from a very specific focus on the bottom line to ‘How can I be a good leader? My own life is being affected in many different ways.’ People were recognizing that before they can be a good leader, they have to be a balanced person.”

In 2018, before the pandemic, I spoke with a number of association CEOs who took the initiative on behalf of their own well-being, be it in terms of negotiated time off, spa days, and additional compensation. Those efforts weren’t, and aren’t, selfish; indeed, one thing I learned from the CEOs was that it generated a greater awareness of wellness that was passed down in meaningful ways to employees. In an era of high stress and high expectations, CEOs should have the freedom to take the lead to advocate on behalf of their own wellness. It supports not just you as a leader, but those you lead and serve.

How has your approach to self-care changed through the pandemic? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Rawf8/iStock/Getty Images)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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