The CEO's guide to switching off

Too much hard work is counterproductive. Here four leaders share how they ease the pressure.

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 14 Aug 2020

Technology has blurred the boundaries between work and our personal lives, a situation hardly improved by months of lockdown. 

With a smartphone in your hand, you are always just one tap away from your email or yet another important conversation with a colleague. For business leaders who are under constant pressure to deliver results, this has made it much harder to switch off.

We spoke to four CEOs for whom work-life balance is more than an impossible dream. Here are their tips for reclaiming your free time. 


Don’t wait until you burn out to make the decision to put your health and wellbeing first. “Years ago I found myself in a hotel bathroom at 3am when on holiday in New York, reading emails on my Blackberry, for absolutely no reason – I thought I needed to be doing that to show my team that I was ‘on it’,” says David Foreman, founder and managing director of Praetura Ventures. 

“I’ve come to realise since then that no one is so important that they can’t take a holiday and that breaks are an important thing within everyone’s lives. Work will always expand to fill the time you give it, but I don’t believe you achieve more by being available 24/7 than you do by setting yourself boundaries. In fact, the most successful people I meet generally have an excellent process for switching off and having time to think.”

Find what works for you

Nils Leonard, co-founder of creative studio Uncommon, has a few different ways to switch off from work: “Cooking a meal detaches my head from the studio,” he says. “It’s a different kind of creativity and creates the space for rest and family. And a run or swim helps remind you of your body, which helps pull you out of a challenge or work stress.” 

A few ground rules also help to minimise that work stress in the first place: “No big meetings on a Monday is a rule we fiercely try to protect,” he says. “It can save weekends and marriages.” 

Force yourself to stop

It may feel uncomfortable at first, but make sure you allot time in your day to get away from your emails. It will soon get easier, says Bjorn Howard, group CEO of Aster, a housing association that manages over 30,000 homes. “Blocking out time in your diary at any point in the day – even just for 15 minutes to take a quick stroll away from your workspace – can help.”

Foreman focuses on protecting his evenings by putting his phone on ‘do not disturb’ between 8pm and 8am. “This way I can find something if it’s urgent, but am less likely to get distracted by something that isn’t time sensitive. I also make sure I turn everything off when I’m on holiday.

“I did find this difficult at first and it’s where the idea of an enforced digital detox came from – an initiative we’ve introduced where our team has a break of at least two weeks a year when they’re physically unable to get onto their email, Teams or SharePoint,” Foreman adds.

Focus on the benefits

If you are struggling to switch off, remember that when it comes to personal effectiveness, less is often more.  

Taking time out leads to greater creativity, reduces the chances of burnout and leaves you better equipped to handle the stress when problems inevitably arise. 

“I feel like I see a significant improvement when I do manage to switch off, due to the freed up brain power that is often otherwise used for mindless scrolling,” says Jamie Burrows, CEO and founder of  Vertical Future, the London-based vertical farming company. “I also experience less variation in energy levels, which is a major positive.”

Foreman adds that taking time out of work gives you invaluable perspective: “I think people have got lost in productivity hacks and ‘getting things done’, which feeds a culture of thinking all goals are work-related and based around being busy. This shouldn’t be the case. People should have goals outside of work – life goals. This is something we all need to focus on.”

Be a role model 

“Leadership teams must also practise what they preach, otherwise people in the business won’t feel they have permission to follow suit,” says Aster’s Howard. “Everyone feels the pressure today to be ‘always on’ and available. They need to know it’s ok – and actually the best thing for them and their job – if they spend quality time on the things outside of work that matter to them. CEOs need to validate people working flexibly and looking after themselves. If we don’t do it – and we aren’t seen to be doing it – how can we expect our people to?” 

Leonard has discovered a phrase that reminds him why he needs to focus on being a good role model for the team. “Karl Jung said something that hits home every time,” he explains. “That nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of a parent. This is as true of leaders too. Leadership isn’t grinding onward in a breathless frown, it’s the ability to drop the shoulders of everyone around you. Then the good stuff comes.” 

Image credit: Thomas Trutschel/Phototek via Getty Images


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