CEOs and Mental Health: Five Ways to Be a Better Business Leader


As the CEO of a growing, 14-year-old company, I’ve found that how I lead is inextricably linked to my mental health on any given day. The amplified stress caused by the pandemic aside, the mental health of CEOs has a ripple effect that impacts those dependent on your clarity to lead.

According to a Harvard Business Review article titled “How CEOs Can Support Employee Mental Health in a Crisis”, Qualtrics and SAP conducted a global study of over 2,700 employees across more than 10 industries during March and April 2020. They found that 75% of respondents said they felt more socially isolated, 67% reported higher stress, 57% felt greater anxiety, and 53% said they felt more emotionally exhausted. Forty percent said their company leadership had not asked how they were doing, noting that they wanted leaders to check in on them. These feelings likely have increased in the time since the study. As a CEO, you are juggling the mental health of yourself and your employees. This fact amplifies the importance of getting your proverbial oxygen mask on first in order to help those who depend on you.

Over the last few years, I’ve discovered just how impactful working on my mental well-being can be to the growth and well-being of my business. Speaking from my experience, I’d like to share with you some of the ways I have found to reduce stress, increase resilience and generally become a better business leader. 

Physical Activity & Fitness

Considering how much I had on my plate each day, going to the gym or taking up a physically engaging hobby never really sounded appealing. It wasn’t until I hit my 40s and became a first-time father did I finally start going to the gym regularly. I was amazed by how much better I felt on the days that started with an intense workout. The gym isn’t for everyone, and it’s certainly been made a lot harder to commit to during the pandemic, but there is an easy alternative. I highly recommend just walking!

A study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. Don’t think you have time to go for a walk? I find that I have at least one meeting every day that could be done via a phone call while walking in my neighborhood park or down the street. When meetings are (thankfully) slim for the week, listen to an educational podcast or download an app like Speechify that will read webpages and documents to you while you walk. The mental impact of the simple act of walking is tremendous, but the added feeling of burning some calories at the same time always does wonders for my mood as well. When you’re ready to level up, add a hike to your week. The engaging terrain and beauty of the outdoors always puts me in an amazing state of mind.

Mindfulness & Meditation

You might be like me some years ago when I heard the words “mindfulness” or “meditation.” I imagined having to do yoga, chant, or strive to “send my spirit to a higher plane of existence” or something. I was wrong. I was surprised to find out how rooted in science the benefits of mindfulness and meditation are.

But how does it benefit CEOs? My good friend and executive mindfulness coach, Janet Fouts said: “The job of the mind is to problem solve, to think thoughts, and that’s OK. But sometimes it keeps us from being our best. What meditation allows us to do is not get hung up on those thoughts or let the thoughts take over. To give ourselves the space to focus on what really matters, at that moment.” What CEO doesn’t want more clarity and focus when making business decisions or prioritizing what move to make next?

The practical application of mindfulness in my day-to-day life has had an incredible impact. I’ve had clearer focus, reacted more constructively to challenges, and made better decisions. I’ve strengthened relationships with clients and employees by being more present, engaged and compassionate in my interactions. 

So where does meditation fit into this? Well, there are a lot of CEOs that espouse the practical benefits of mediation. But as with all things worth doing, it can take time to build up the practice.

Janet shares a nifty way to get started. “When people ask me to teach them mindfulness, I don’t make them sit in meditation for 20 minutes, read the great works of knowledge on the subject or lecture on the evils of mindlessness. That’s not helpful or fair.

“Instead, I teach them how a microdose of mindfulness helps build a habit of being less distracted and more focused. Taken in small doses, mindfulness is quite doable; it makes sense. Once that tiny dose works its magic … we want more.”

Private Executive Coach or CEO Peer Groups

CEOs often run into unique challenges that are hard to discuss with people unfamiliar with the responsibilities of the role. You might find value by joining a CEO peer group or working with a private executive coach.

CEO peer groups, such as The Alliance of Chief Executives, pair you with a group of other leaders along with a group facilitator who often is a seasoned CEO. In the groups I’ve attended, the group commonly shares their challenges with one another, gaining insights from those who have faced similar issues. Because of the varied experiences within the group, and the collective wisdom they have, these groups are a great way to get out of the isolated whirlwind within your own head and tackle challenges with others who understand.

This year, I hired a private executive coach. While groups often focus on the needs and energy of the group, a personal executive coach is a one-on-one relationship that focuses on you. The key to this is finding a coach that clicks with you. A great coach helps challenged leaders overcome critical roadblocks, and helps successful CEOs tap into even greater potential within themselves.

I’ve found it tremendously helpful working with my private executive coach Bryan Kramer. He’s guided me through his process to become a better business leader by tapping into parts of who I am that serve me well. While I might have been able to do this on my own over time, it certainly would have been more stressful and likely impacted other aspects of my business and family life. By embracing more of who I am as a human, I am capable of aligning those things with who I am as a business leader. It’s an amazing feeling when it all clicks and you now bring your whole self to the business.

Get a Therapist

In 2014, my mental health took a tremendous nose dive after the death of my father. It affected everything in my life. My family life, my ability to focus, my desire to work, my physical health … all of it. As a CEO, there was only so much I could allow my grieving to impact my daily life before I would be forced to address it. Customers were counting on me. Employees were counting on me and my family was counting on me to find a way to process the stress, anxiety and depression I was feeling.

After meeting with a couple of therapists, I found one that was fit to help me address my personal experiences. In my experience, therapy is one of the most undervalued and underutilized tools for improving mental health. There is a bevy of reasons why people don’t talk to therapists. One of the biggest hurdles in my book was finding a therapist that was the right fit for me individually. Nothing is a bigger turn-off than talking to someone, especially a mental health professional, who doesn’t understand the cultural, social, religious and other dynamics of who you are as a human being.

I continue to talk to my therapist regularly. Setting aside regular, focused time to address how I am feeling emotionally has been invaluable. Although some people may find it helpful just to have someone listen to them for an hour, I find it most helpful to have someone with whom to co-process things. We all have unique life experiences that continue to unfurl and evolve over time. Talking with someone who understands the context of your life and has the professional experience to help you process your emotions can transform a sense of anxiety into calm, or sadness into reflective strength. I’ve also noticed that I’ve become better at understanding the people I work with and serve after having gotten more in tune with myself.

Socialize with Friends & Family

In a time where socializing needs to be done at a distance, it’s even more important to find a way to connect with friends and family. Until the time comes when social distancing orders have ceased, consider carving out space for virtual social time. Morning coffee or lunch breaks on any number of video or voice apps with a group of your besties will lift your spirits. There’s a ton of games you can play with friends and family via Zoom. Pop your headphones on and go for an afternoon walk and talk. Grab a bowl of popcorn and use the Disney+ GroupWatch or Netflix Party feature to stream a movie or show with friends in another state for a distanced movie night. Put everyone on speakerphone on a group call to hear reactions in real-time. Or don a VR headset like the Oculus Quest or grab your preferred video game console to compete or co-op with friends.

The point is, although not ideal, there are options. For me, a simple walk and talk with one of my close friends is a big boost to my mental health. Even on the most stressful days, being present and listening to a friend share something they are going through, and being given the opportunity to provide my perspective, fills my heart. The same people you love to hang out with in person still are there. Reach out, be creative, and keep those connections alive.

Bringing it all Together To Be Better a Business Leader

For some people, this is all going to seem like a lot. I understand. The point is to reduce your stress, not add to it with additional time commitments or new skills to learn. Find the blend of solutions that works for your current needs. Those needs are bound to change over time. That’s OK. Mental health remains severely under-addressed in our society. The good news is that it’s getting better. As a leader and CEO, you have the opportunity to influence those around you. We must choose to lead through resilience, focus, mindfulness and emotional intelligence by actively addressing our mental health. I hope that sharing my experiences with you has been helpful. Here’s to your mental health!

Adam Helweh

Adam Helweh is the founder and CEO of Silicon Valley performance marketing agency Secret Sushi. For the last 20 years, he's helped clients navigate the evolving digital marketing landscape and harness it to grow their business. He believes that, in the age of the connected customer, understanding what it means to be a connected marketer is critical to being successful. Outside of work, he is pursuing his most significant role ever as a first-time father, re-experiencing life through his son's eyes.