The $100,000 Anti-Burnout Program for CEOs

Companies hate losing their star workaholics, so J&J is triple-teaming them with a dietitian, a physiologist, and an executive coach.
Illustrator: Steph Davidson

Johnson & Johnson thinks it has the answer to executive burnout. All it takes is a physiologist, a dietitian, an executive coach, and $100,000 in special services.

J&J is launching an intensive program today to make sure its senior executives stay in top physical, mental, and emotional form. The program, which the health and personal care company is calling Premier Executive Leadership, will surround its leadership class with specialists like the medical crew around an astronaut after splashdown. A battery of services will include abdominal ultrasounds at the Mayo Clinic and home visits by a dietitian for cupboard inspections.

"Leaders aren't a set of skills and tools. They're a human being," said Lowinn Kibbey, the head of Johnson & Johnson's Human Performance Institute, which developed the program. "Many of these leaders arrive in these roles without being equipped with how to stay healthy and resilient." 

So J&J has spent the past year trying out its anti-burnout initiative on seven of its own executives (citing privacy, the company declined to say whether its chief executive officer has enrolled) and will start marketing the program today to other Fortune 100 companies, at $100,000 a head. 

"You can't separate out your personal and professional lives," said Peter Fasolo, who heads up human resources. "People don't check themselves at the door when they walk in." 

Companies hate losing executives who work nonstop, travel regularly, produce top results—and stress about work so much that they inevitably burn out and leave. Almost half of executives last (PDF) fewer than 18 months after a job change or promotion, according to research from CEB. They complain of physical fatigue from late-night and early-morning conference calls. They don't have time to work out. They eat bad food on the road. And, as executives, they have few people to talk with about their problems. 

To be sure, the burned-out CEO makes, on average, 373 times as much as his or her (also burned-out) employees and has much heftier retirement benefits, too. But companies invest small fortunes, and often many years, training these people to lead. Replacing a chief executive after a sudden departure costs U.S. companies an average of $1.8 billion in shareholder value, according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

Executives are particularly prone to burnout because they work in a steady thrum of intense stress.

"Our research shows that leaders in organizations operate in a VUCA environment," said Seymour Adler, a partner at the human resources consulting firm Aon Hewitt. The acronym, with its roots in war, stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. "It takes a toll," Adler said.

That's more or less what happened to Greg Head, a senior executive at SalesLogix LLC, a customer management company. Basically, he started to crack, overwhelmed by "the anxiety, the back pain, the weight of it all," he said. "I wanted to turn left on the way to work, not right." One day in 2004, Head, now 52, did just that. He quit his job and embarked on a career as a startup consultant. Head likened his tenure at SalesLogix (now known as Infor CRM) to an extreme sport. To stay in shape, he should have trained. 

Johnson & Johnson's burnout watch begins with a proprietary executive health assessment at the Mayo Clinic that lasts two and a half days. A team of doctors performs a comprehensive examination, with tests including bone density scans, abdominal ultrasounds, and a pharmaco-genetics review to measure how genes respond to certain medications. Unlike the standard C-suite physical, the exam focuses on metabolism, stamina, and strength. The results serve as a baseline of health as the executive goes through the program. 

The executive then meets for a number of days with her three coaches—the dietitian, the physiologist, and the executive coach—all of whom will closely monitor her progress over the next nine months. The dietitian will offer her a number of tips on how to stay healthy on business trips.

"You pack like you're on a canoe trip," said David Astorino, one of the program's executive coaches and a senior partner at RHR International. If execs don't eat every three hours, blood sugar drops. "We want energy," Astorino said. The home visit and cupboard diagnosis are meant to ensure they have access to the healthiest foods at home as well as at work. 

The executive coach conducts a preliminary interview that can last up to two days. "We get to know them very well. We help them tell their life story, so to speak," Astorino said. One way to avoid burnout: Give an executive a reason to work so hard. "This program's belief is you have to be motivated by something bigger than yourself. We help them define what their purpose is," Astorino said.

Executive coaching in the U.S. is a $1 billion industry, according to IBIS World. Executives spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars an hour to hang with gurus in the name of self-improvement. A Korn Ferry Institute analysis found a handsome return on investment, with improvements in productivity, quality, organizational strength, and shareholder value worth almost six times the cost of coaching. 

J&J says its Premier Executive Leadership program differs from standard executive coaching because of its holistic approach. "What's unique here is we’re sending clear messages to this individual that we support you," said Fasolo, the HR chief. "We get to the root causes, what drives these behaviors. It's more than stress management." At the very least, the executive is likely to feel cared for by the company, boosting loyalty and, in theory, retention. 

To zero in on the sense of purpose, the specially trained executive coach goes over participants' assessments of their mental state with them. An executive might complain of feeling like an impostor in his new role. Like a therapist, the coach tries to get to the root of the problem using a technique called "narrative therapy," in which the executive sits down and writes out his life story. He might say he has always equated achievement with love and, in his current role, feels overwhelmed, unloved, and like a failure. He sets down goals and continues to meet with his coach every two weeks, writing out the same story.

"Habits are neural pathways," Astorino said. Repeating the life story exercise, which evolves over time as the executive works with the coach, helps rewrite any bad habits or negative thought cycles. "That starts to correct the neuro-patterns" in the brain, Astorino said. 

The coach also interviews the executive's family, friends, and colleagues to find "potential fractures that could become tectonic shifts if there's enough pressure applied," said Kibbey, of the Performance Institute.  

From there, the three coaches decide together how to get executives to be their best physical, mental, and emotional selves. The dietitian and physiologist work out a diet and exercise regime, which can include tips as simple as eating a balanced breakfast, something many busy leaders don't do. Over the following months, executives check in with their coaches. At the end of the program, they do a final self-assessment.

Back when Head worked as a manager, just a dozen years ago, executive coaching didn't exist, at least not to his knowledge. "Everyone sucked it up, and a lot of people were miserable," he said, adding that J&J's program sounded like a good idea to him.

"To be honest," he said, "I’m surprised that in any kind of senior executive leadership role, there isn't an automatic coaching opportunity for just about every new leader."

(Updates with Astorino's full title.)

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