"Leaders should slow the f*ck down", says CEO who nearly died of stress

Glow London's CEO Emma Harris nearly died when she had a stress-related cardiac arrest on a work trip. She tells her story and what she's changed as a result, in MT's new Leadership Lessons podcast.

by Kate Magee
Last Updated: 26 Jan 2023
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Glow London’s chief executive Emma Harris was in a New York restaurant having brunch when it happened.

It was the end of an exceptionally busy two weeks, where she’d flown between New York, Chicago and London multiple times for work. She had kept up her exercise regime, running by the Hudson river and doing HIIT classes in her hotel room. She was fuelling herself with coffee by day and espresso martinis by night to deal with the exhaustion.

As her colleagues (and brunch companions) tell it, Harris stood up to go to the bathroom, slid down the back of her chair, started turning blue and then stopped breathing. Harris can’t remember a thing.

She was having a cardiac arrest. It’s more lethal than a heart attack. Only one in 10 people who have one outside of hospital survive. Of those, 60% of survivors get brain damage due to lack of oxygen to the brain.

Panicked, her colleagues shouted: “Is there a doctor in the room?” Miraculously, three people raised their hands and administered CPR until the ambulance arrived in just seven minutes – an unusually fast time for New York.

Medical staff were shaking their heads as they worked on her in the ambulance. That night, they told her family to expect the worst.

But after emergency heart surgery and eight days in intensive care, Harris has now fully recovered, albeit with a defibrillator in her side to shock her quickly if it happens again.

This story may sound like it has nothing to do with leadership, but here’s the thing: the cardiac arrest was idiopathic. That means it happened spontaneously. Harris had a healthy heart, no genetic conditions, was very fit and had a low cholesterol reading of 3.3. The medical professionals are not sure why it happened, but they strongly suspect it was caused by “a perfect storm of stress”.

The dangers of doing too much

Looking back on it, Harris is not surprised. As well as her busy CEO role, she was chair of the Marketing Academy Foundation and on the board of social media agency The Social Element. She has four children ranging from five to 21 years old. She’s an active member of the PTA and was a class rep. “I’m always the first one with my hand up to help,” she says.

She believes this is a deep-seated trait. “When I was 12, my mum contracted viral encephalitis. Overnight, it took her from this fabulous alpha female, who I like to think I role-modelled myself on, to being someone with no short-term memory for the rest of her life,” she says. “That really changed who I was – I coped by looking after everyone in my family.”

When Harris was in the ICU, she posted a message on LinkedIn, urging other CEOs to “slow the fuck down”. It touched a nerve. It was “liked” by 93,000 people and generated 9,000 comments. Harris can’t remember writing it. She had also accidentally made her condition public before her children knew there was a problem.

Rising pressure

She believes it is important to talk about this issue because she is concerned about the amount of pressure leaders are under, particularly since the pandemic.

“Post-Covid, we are all working harder than we ever have. There’s this expectation of back-to-back meetings. It would often get to 3pm and I’d be asking my husband to get me a glass of water. He thought I was a mad woman. He’d say, ‘Just tell the people you are in a meeting with that you need to go and get some water.’ Of course, I could have done that but we don’t. No food, no water, no wee break – that’s just not sustainable,” she says.

Harris is by no means the only leader who experienced increasing work intensity. The silent burnout epidemic stalking the upper echelons of business is something Management Today has covered extensively. Indeed, one of the responses to her LinkedIn post was from a creative director in an ad agency who said he was on his way to a big pitch, knew he was having a heart attack, went to the pitch and on the way out asked if someone could take him to A&E.

Harris believes her generation has grown up with a "work hard, play hard’ mentality. She remembers many occasions when in her previous role, as head of comms at Eurostar with a team of 300, she expected her staff to be out partying with her until 3am and still be at their desk at 8am the next day. She realises now that she wasn’t thinking about the impact that was having on other people.

Her brush with death has left her reassessing the system. “I know I’m not alone in this, but before my cardiac arrest, I had a drive for better, bigger, more, faster. My turnover had to grow year on year. I had to win that bit of business. I had to win that award. But for who? Who was I doing that for?” she says.

She recognises that almost 95% of the pressure she was under was self-imposed: “Here I am, a fabulous family, married to the love of my life, in a beautiful home. My business is going well. So where did that pressure come from?”

“I now see the bullets, because I know how close I came to losing my life. When you come that close, you see the madness, the pressure that people put themselves under to get somewhere they might never get,” she says.

The leadership changes

Harris has taken some practical steps to prevent such an incident happening again. For a start, her diary has changed. She already worked a four-day week, but she now keeps one of her working days meeting-free, which allows her to write and think without interruptions.

She reduced some of her commitments. She’s no longer a PTA class rep, although she is still on the committee. She is now a board advisor rather than an executive at The Social Element, and no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the agency.

She employs a nutritionist, who advises her to eat off small plates with 50% vegetables, 25% protein and 25% carbohydrates and, instead of running, she has a personal training session every week, prioritising strength training.

Generally she is calmer and more able to keep things in perspective. Recently she had an issue with a client, where a big piece of design work they created was loved by the client’s chief marketing officer but not by the CEO. “Before, I’d have been driving myself crazy because the CEO wasn’t happy. I’d have been on the train trying to fix it. Now I think, well, these things happen,” she says.

Prioritise your health

She often thinks of the alternative outcomes of her cardiac arrest. Of what might have happened if she made it to the toilet in the restaurant before she collapsed. Or if she was walking down the street. “Or God forbid, I’ve thought of this a million times, what if I was at home with my kids on my own,” she says.

She now prioritises her children and her own wellbeing: “At the beginning I had this crazy obsession with ‘why me’? Why was I saved and not other people? I lost a friend a couple of years ago to something similar. He died at home in the morning. Why was I saved? I feel like it’s my kids.”

Harris continues: “I know this sounds really hippie, but all this drive for status is just a quest for self-love. That is peace. So invest time in yourself. Those thoughts that you are not good enough and you’ve got to do more are just thoughts. They don’t exist. They’re not real. The only thing that’s real is this moment now.”

She urges people to say no more often. “Saying no is so powerful. What's mad is that you are catastrophizing in your head – if I don't go to that event or that meeting, I'll miss the biggest business deal of my life.”

She advises people to say things like “that sounds brilliant, but let’s find another way to do that that doesn’t involve me coming into the office tomorrow”.

She adds: “This is not about slowing down to be less effective. This is about slowing down to be better. This is high performance. My biggest leadership lesson is that nothing is more important than looking after yourself.”

Listen to the full conversation on the first episode of Management Today's Leadership Lessons podcast, available on the usual podcast platforms like Apple and Spotify.