Managing stress as a charity CEO

During national stress awareness month, Hannah Massarella from Bird talks about the importance of self-care for charity CEOs.

Short-term stress can feel exciting, it can be the thing that drives us to perform well at a presentation, or meet a deadline. Short-term stress makes life interesting and provides us with the fire in our belly to jump out of bed in the morning, ready for the challenges ahead.

Cumulative stress, on the other hand, has a huge impact on our bodies, our behaviour, our productivity and our relationships. Cumulative stress is where we experience a variety of different stressors, over a period of time. Individually, the stressors can seem manageable, such as dealing with a challenging board or staff member, navigating budget cuts, juggling work and home life or feeling like an imposter in the role. Collectively however, these stressors have a big impact, which is worth examining.

When we’re feeling stressed our behaviours change, and our bodies start to feel the pressure. Constantly feeling tired, unwell, over-eating, under-eating, back ache, headaches, flying off the handle, projecting anger or hurt, numbing out with alcohol or food or Netflix or a never ending to-do list, digestive problems, reproductive problems, eczema, breathing problems or pretending absolutely everything is ok when it clearly isn’t, are all symptoms that can manifest when we’re experiencing cumulative stress. Cumulative stress, particularly if left untended to, can lead to a lack of energy, lack of focus, anxiety, depression and even burn out.

The stressors that cause cumulative stress are so commonplace that they’re easily ignored. Gaining the time to examine the stress you are under as a CEO is challenging. There is often an expectation that you have to hold everything together, that you’re the linchpin that has to keep everyone headed in the right direction and feeling focused, energised and supported. Sharing with those around you that you need time to self-reflect, process and re-charge can be hard, and irrationally, can sometimes lead to people questioning your ability.

But the times are changing, and luckily there is now a greater understanding that paying attention to well-being and mental health is a priority, not a sign of weakness. Strong leaders are self-aware and take the time to check in with themselves and implement self-care strategies. When we take the time to prioritise our well-being, we become more equipped to deal with the inevitable ongoing challenges that come up. When we take the time to prioritise our well-being, we show up healthy, happy and energised, and thus we serve our teams, our communities, our beneficiaries and our families in a more powerful way.

Self-care strategies are personal, and it often takes a period of trial and error to find the strategies that fill your particular tool-box. If you haven’t filled yours yet, or you’re looking to add some new strategies to your arsenal here are a few ideas.

Reaching out and getting support be it through a counsellor or a coach is a safe and productive strategy. Further to that, creating a team of ‘supporters’ can be highly impactful in order to offload and share the burdens. As explained in Bird’s recent Civil Society Media article:

‘Drawing on networks of people in similar positions also provides support, particularly among charity leaders, who can find themselves feeling lonely and over-burdened with responsibility. “I have people who I trust and I was able with a colleague the other week to say ‘I feel a bit shit at the moment’. And we compared notes,” explains Mark Flannagan, former CEO of Beating Bowel Cancer “We need to build up trust in our friendships, we need to be supportive.”’

Another strategy to reduce the impact of stress is mindfulness. Mindfulness works to calm the central nervous system, it works to bring your back to calm and still when all around you is chaotic, it helps to get you to answers faster because you’re not side tracked by all the noise. At Bird we recommend Head Space as a fantastic way to start a journey of mindfulness.

Building resilience and prioritising well-being can also involve taking time in nature, doing exercise, having a healthy diet, investing in massages, reiki, hypnotherapy, journaling, practicing gratitude and practicing self-acknowledgement.

But perhaps most important, is honesty and openness about what’s truly going on. Being vulnerable, open and honest about where you find yourself is key to tackling stress. And this isn’t even necessarily sharing that information with others. Acknowledging it to yourself is key. Problems like burn out arise when we deny ourselves the opportunity to say ‘I’m struggling here.’ Once we acknowledge what’s really going on we can begin to be self-compassionate. And as researcher Kristin Neff shares, self-compassion is a process integral to resilience and on-going well-being.

Stress is always going to be there, we live in a fast paced world of demands. The key to traversing this rocky path is to prioritise your self-care and well-being, to make sure you have strategies to keep yourself buoyant and energised. As we always advocate here at Bird, self-care is a priority, not a luxury.

If you or anyone in your team would like further information on how we can support you around these issues please email









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