Sustainable Leadership = Sustainable Business

Posted: 14 May 2021

Lessons learned from CEO burnout

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Week (10th — 14th May), we’ve partnered with Mental Fitness Consultant and Trainer, Charlotte Wiseman, to share her research on the pervasive impact of CEO burnout and low mental health in the workplace. Healthy leadership is the key to a healthy organisation and it starts with self-awareness. Let Charlotte guide you through her 3 easy tips to ensure you’re optimising your performance and your influence, while fostering mental wellbeing and resilience for your company, and yourself.

Leaders are the climate engineers of an organization — catalysts that drive performance, inspire innovation, and cultivate staff loyalty. That influence comes at a price: 96% of leaders burn out as a result of unmanaged workplace pressure. Among those leaders are CEOs. When a CEO’s wellbeing is in jeopardy, it often has pervasive, rippling effects through organisations, from stakeholders, and into society. When low mental health in the workplace costs employers a staggering £34.9 billion per year in the UK alone, it’s a problem that can simply no longer be ignored.

A CEO burnout inevitably impacts the company’s bottom line and often leads to CEOs stepping down from their role prematurely. This phenomenon has become a core area of my research over the last 5 years. In my latest study, I spoke to CEOs who had experienced a major crisis of wellbeing or burnout. I asked them about their experience and their top tips to promote positive wellbeing through challenging times. Here are the top 3.

1. Take two minutes to honestly check-in with yourself

This is all about building self-awareness so you can manage your energy and time more effectively. Ask yourself now, how do you feel on a scale of 1–10? This is something most of us rarely do on a day-to-day basis. Even when someone asks how we are, we reply “fine” without even thinking about it. Developing self-awareness means doing this more regularly — perhaps before you start your day, once during the day, and once before you close your laptop. In doing so, you offer yourself the opportunity to be proactive in managing how you feel so you can take positive action to improve your state of mind, your physical health, and your productivity.

Some good follow-up questions are:


  • What is contributing to that number?
  • What emotions, thoughts, or physical feelings are you aware of?
  • What small action will be most helpful to you right now?


Try to avoid judging how you feel. Instead, simply notice and acknowledge whatever is going on for you. This calms our nervous system. When we push away certain feelings, perhaps saying “why am I feeling that way?” or “I should be able to deal with this,” we are fighting ourselves. This means the difficult feelings ‘shout’ louder.

Once you have been able to identify and accept how you feel, you can then take positive action to manage your state of mind. That could be taking a short break to get some air or move your body (67% of the CEOs I spoke to expressed that exercise helped them switch off the most), making a list or prioritising tasks to be done, delegating or asking for help, listening to some music, or practicing a hobby. Learning what is most helpful in these moments is an on-going journey of curiosity and clarification. We need to keep experimenting to find our own toolbox of healthy coping strategies.

Why not try it now? Take a break to clear your mind and say it out loud: “How do I feel on a scale of 1–10?” “What do I need to do now to optimise my mind and mood?” Take note of your answers and use them to refine your future actions over time.

2. Play to your strengths

You know that feeling when you do something that goes against your better nature or your morals? That nagging feeling you might call guilt, embarrassment, or regret? Most of us have had that feeling at some point in our life. This emotion is cognitively exhausting. When we don’t align our actions with our values, it depletes and distracts us. We need to bring our focus to what matters to us, to what gives meaning to our lives, and do our best to live in alignment with these values.

Figuring out your strengths takes a bit of time and introspection. A great way to narrow down your top strengths is by taking the VIA Character Strengths Survey. VIA has identified 24 character strengths, from curiosity and fairness to love of learning and humor. Each strength comes with guidance on how to become aware of it, and how to apply it in your business and daily life.

Another option is to ask yourself the following questions:


  • What strengths am I most proud of in my work?
  • What are my top 3 strengths (see chart below for inspiration)?
  • Which strengths do I overuse? Which do I underuse?
  • How could I build on underused strengths to balance the overused ones?
  • Where could using my strengths help me have more impact in my work?

From the companies I’ve worked with, I’ve noticed that those which are excelling and thriving the most amidst the current challenges are the ones who are committed to helping their leaders and teams use their strengths in the workplace. Research shows that this can boost productivity by up to 18 times as well as reducing stress and boosting morale, all of which are fundamental to individual and organizational resilience.

3. Express vulnerability by speaking openly about your experience

The final piece of the puzzle is Connection. In the last 12 months, most of us have seen and felt the impact of being physically distanced from our communities. While we have a wealth of options to stay in touch digitally, through video conferencing, messaging, and social media platforms, there is no replacement for face-to-face conversations and human touch. (Do you even remember the last time you shook someone’s hand?)

Human connection is proven to be an ‘immunity booster’ for our minds. Positive interactions keep us motivated, mentally and physically resilient, and enhance our moods. They also impact the way glucose in the body is metabolised, which means speaking with others helps manage our energy more effectively, too. While some CEOs confided in coaches before they were able to share their experiences with family members and others spoke directly to colleagues, 100% of employees highlighted that establishing open communication in the workplace was fundamental to creating resilience in themselves and in their organisations.

So, as you sit here reading this, I encourage you to write down:


  1. Three people you could call in a challenging moment
  2. Three people who could help you stay accountable to the positive actions you have committed to in this article
  3. Three people who you feel would benefit from reading this article so that they too can take action.

In conclusion: a healthy, energised CEO translates into a happy, productive business

While companies tend to be aware of the pressure they put on people, CEOs often forget to consider the pressure they put on themselves — and the serious impact this has on the rest of the organisation. When we are exhausted, stressed and don’t look after our own needs, this starts to impact our performance and the way in which we communicate with others, often in a negative way. We also lose our perspective on life — we can’t see the wood for the trees.

34% of the CEOs I studied who had, or were so burned out, expressed that they had even contemplated suicide as the only way out. This is a serious concern and something that, I hope you will agree, needs to be addressed immediately. If you know someone who is struggling, please share this or reach out to them today. If you are feeling the pressure and don’t know where to turn, please find someone to talk to.

If we are going to lead effectively, we need to lead by example. This is what enables us to optimise our performance and influence today, and sustain it for the long-term. It also means we can enjoy the leadership journey, the challenges, the highs, and the lows. CEO wellbeing is the foundation of organisational resilience. It is a place from which leaders can inspire their team in a way that they can maintain their performance and health. So, on a scale of 1–10, how do you feel today? And what will you do about it?

Charlotte Wiseman is an applied Positive Psychology and Leadership Consultant known for her pioneering work in mental fitness in the workplace. It was her own personal journey overcoming chronic stress, anxiety and depression that first led her to explore mindfulness and positive psychology in 2009. She now runs her own business, offering consultancy, leadership training, and corporate wellness services. Find out more and get in touch via her website!