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Self-Care for the Stressed-Out Director

Jun 07, 2020

I received some interesting comments in response to the last Savvy Director™ blog on the topic of resilient leadership. This one below really got me thinking about a director’s need for self-care in the face of stress and worry about the organizations they oversee.

“I hope leaders, even if resilient, do not view themselves as invincible. They and their boards have to ask themselves ... how can I stay whole? How can I help others do the same? If we do not tend our ‘own gardens’ we may find ourselves withered, dry, or simply dead. Worst of all ─- dead but still in the job.”

Self-care is any activity that we do to take care of our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Good self-care is key to improved mood, reduced anxiety, and positive relationships. Although I’m no expert on the subject, I do appreciate and try to practice positive behaviors such as eating well, getting my beauty sleep, exercising and meditating.

But what does this have to do with board directors?

The Director’s Brain

Did you know that the brain uses more energy than any other human organ, accounting for up to 20 percent of the body’s total reserves? The brain is where we process information, make decisions, manage emotions, control responses, and exercise willpower. So, any dip in our energy levels affects the brain and is acutely felt when we make decisions or when we need to manage our emotions.

For each of us on a board, (and for the CEO most of all,) managing our energy becomes extremely important. All the more so when we have to deal with situations that cause us worry and anxiety and present us with the constant need for real-time decisions in an uncertain environment. Can you say Pandemic?

So how does this play out for the typical board member?

High levels of energy are needed to make decisions. But what happens when that energy has been depleted?

That happens naturally as the day progresses, and it happens even faster when the brain has been consuming energy to deal with negative emotions like stress, anxiety, and frustration. The need to exercise self-control in the boardroom saps even more of the brain’s energy.

Decision Fatigue

If you have been involved in a long meeting that had the goal of reaching conclusion on a number of critical decisions, you probably have experienced decision fatigue. Early decisions received careful and thoughtful consideration, but as the end of the drawn-out meeting drew near, people were ready to accept any alternative that would get them to adjournment faster. That is decision fatigue in action.

Decision fatigue is not the same thing as physical fatigue. The meeting participants were not necessarily physically tired at all. But the energy they needed to make decisions had been depleted.

Decision fatigue is responsible for increasingly poor choices, indecision and even complete decision avoidance as the day progresses.

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s effort to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.John M. Grohol, Psy. D.

One of the results of decision fatigue is a reduced ability to resist impulses, making us more vulnerable to suggestions and influences. It’s easy to see how that would apply in a board room. A management proposal that comes at the end of a long meeting is less likely to undergo careful scrutiny and analysis before a decision is reached. Many smart operators (directors and executives alike) have manoeuvred their board into a decision which would never have been agreed to had it been proposed earlier in the meeting.

Some fascinating research has taken place into how this affects parole board decisions. It turns out the most significant factor in the parole board’s decision was not the nature of the crime, the type of law broken, or the situation of the potential parolee. No, the most significant factor was the time of day when the parole hearing took place! If you have applied for parole, the best time to have your application heard is early in the morning or just after lunch!

How Boards Can Reduce Decision Fatigue

Here are a few variables that boards can control to help mitigate the effects of decision fatigue:

  1. Hold meetings earlier in the day rather than later.
  2. Take a hard look at the content of meeting agendas. Are there items that can be deferred, delegated or ditched?
  3. Deal with the most important strategic items first, before decision fatigue sets in.
  4. Ensure concise, high quality information to minimize fatigue setting in even before the meeting starts.
  5. Monitor energy levels during the meeting and be prepared to defer important decisions if it looks like decision fatigue has set in.
  6. Provide healthy food and refreshments to restore directors’ supply of energy.

How a Savvy Director Can Reduce Decision Fatigue

Self-awareness is an important characteristic of savvy directors ─ in this case, awareness of their own vulnerability to decision fatigue. Studies show that people with the best self-control are those who structure their lives to conserve willpower. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.

“The best decision makers are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”Dr. Roy F. Baumeister

And this brings us back to self-care. Since negative emotions like stress and anxiety deplete the brain’s energy, focusing on your own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being will contribute to your ability to remain focused, alert and able to make decisions.

As I told you at the start, I’m no expert. But there are lots of good resources out there. Here are just a few:

Your takeaways:

  • Decision fatigue impairs our ability to make good decisions.
  • Stress and anxiety can worsen the effects of decision fatigue.
  • Boards can take steps to reduce decision fatigue.
  • Focus on your own self-care to reduce the stress that can sap your brain’s energy.


Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.

Thank you.

Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.

Share Your Insight: What self-care tips can you share with your fellow directors?



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