Stress as a charity CEO: what I learnt from stopping

Rosie Ferguson, CEO of House of St Barnabas and ACEVO’s chair, shares what she has learnt from dealing with stress.

This time last year I was exhausted and googling “am I having a nervous breakdown?” I plucked up courage to email my chair and admit I needed some time off. A visit to my GP confirmed I had a build-up of work-related stress. I was given a doctor’s sick note for the first time in my life; not something I ever thought would happen to me.

This followed a year of closing services, leading major redundancies and managing one cash flow crisis after another: all while trying to drive forward a new strategy and secure investment in the organisation’s future. Loaded with the responsibility for the survival of a well-loved and much needed national institution in its centenary year: it all felt like it was hanging on my shoulders.

The jobs we do as charity CEOs are a privilege and they are hard. We are leading in a climate of greater need among beneficiaries, less money, higher expectations from funders and increasing demands from employees. We carry the responsibility for our impact on beneficiaries, staff welfare and financial fragility – and this takes its toll. Generally I’m pretty resilient, but 2018 took every ounce of my personal resources – I needed to recharge.

After lots of yoga, jigsaws and love from friends and family, I recovered – and am now back to my usual relentlessly active self, in a new job that I love. But I learnt a lot from my experience and I thought it was worth sharing, in case it helps other CEOs.

Here are five things I’ve learnt:

Stop earlier

I think it probably took me about a month from when I first knew I wasn’t coping, to when I stopped. I was focusing on ‘just getting to Christmas’ but by this point I was not sleeping and was crying on the phone to our audit partner and to several (very understanding) members of our finance committee! Although at the time I felt I couldn’t possibly take a break, looking back I clearly wasn’t in the best headspace to be leading colleagues or making decisions. With hindsight, I should have stopped earlier before crossing that line, and it might have meant a quicker recovery. I’ve since read a fair bit about prolonged stress and what it does to the body, as well as ways to manage it, and feel that this should be a more active conversation among leaders.

Of course, as charity chief executives, we must do our best to recognise and manage our own wellbeing; we have a responsibility to look after ourselves and sometimes that means we just have to stop.

It wasn’t just me

Never known for being coy, I wasn’t afraid to let friends and colleagues in the sector know I wasn’t well. But what surprised me was how many charity CEOs got in touch to say that they had also had a period of poor mental health whilst in the role. Many had been off sick but given a different reason or had used their annual leave to recover. Many had experienced a bout of acute stress or depression whilst being in a leadership position. It was reassuring to know I was in good company, but disappointing that this hadn’t been more of a live conversation before I got ill as I may have been better able to identify the warning signs and ask for help.

Trustees step up when needed

Taking time off meant trustees had to do more. They did. My trustees (among many other things) met regularly, built a relationship with our bank, secured new investment, hired new staff, built a direct relationship with our auditor, hosted a stakeholder event and communicated directly to staff. Although trustees should not be undertaking executive tasks as more than a short-term measure, all of these strengthened the board and their understanding of the organisation for the long term. And it made me realise that they genuinely had my – and more importantly the organisation’s – back. In the future, I will definitely be more deliberate in involving trustees in key relationships and risks. This will ensure any burden is more widely shared and they are able to step up when needed.

Having been a trustee of several charities, I understand that we can’t always see how to be practically useful without undermining a trusted CEO. I’ve now seen that by really engaging with and sharing risk, it can reduce that sense of isolation.

Responsibility must be shared

Most CEOs find ourselves in the roles we do because we like to take responsibility for things. We were probably the first to volunteer to be the class rep at school, the sixer at Guides or volunteer with our students’ union. I was. But sometimes when stressed we take everything on and don’t allow much space for others to grow around us. Although I’m really committed to developing the staff I manage and giving autonomy, I know that if I’m stressed, my personality and tendency to take stuff on means I might fail to ensure that responsibility for the organisation is genuinely shared across trustees and the senior team. I can start to think that only I can fix something (including things I simply don’t have the skills or expertise to fix).

Charitable institutions are funny beasts, especially ones who’ve been around for a long time. An essence of the charity is held by beneficiaries, current and former staff, founders, funders and the media which goes way beyond what the charity may or may not be in that moment. So, the success or demise of that charity is not all about the CEO. When things are going well under your leadership it is tempting to naively claim the credit, but the reality is that the success and failures of an organisation are down to so many people – as well as a large dose of luck and timing.

This too will pass

It took me about six months from the point of crisis to feel fully like myself again with my normal energy levels. Others I’ve spoken to have mentioned a similar length of time. Life didn’t stop in that time, but it was a slow return to full normality. There were times when I wondered if I’d ever return to my former personality and whether I’d spend the rest of my life drinking herbal tea and writing poetry. (My sister was particularly concerned about my loss of ‘attitude’). But bit by bit it has fully returned, albeit to a slightly wiser and more forgiving me.

One year on and in hindsight I’m grateful for the experience and what I learnt about myself. I’m also grateful for the friends, family and colleagues who supported me.

In a career as a charity CEO or similar responsibility, it is highly likely that you will experience some periods of extreme and sustained stress.

Do what you can to look after yourself and ask for help. But sometimes you may have to prioritise yourself and stop. And that will not be the end of the world.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by stress at work you can access support and information from the following places:

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Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

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