Stress Relief

Stress and burnout are the silent killers of productivity, causing more than 60 percent of work absences each year. The prevalence of instant messaging, laptops, smartphones, iPhones, iPads, and BlackBerrys make it difficult for anyone to unplug from work
Illustrations by Michael Eugene Burdick

Various scientific studies show the brain can get a stress signal every time an instant message, text, or e-mail arrives. And too much stress, even for those who manage it well, can lead to tension and fatigue.

To better balance work and home life, we asked five hard-charging executives how they handle stress — and, more importantly, how they un-plug from it.

Nancy Schilchting — CEO, Henry Ford Health System, Detroit

• Nancy Schlichting, CEO of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, shakes her head when the discussion turns to the daunting demands of the corner office. Despite overseeing a $4.2-billion, 24,000-employee health care organization, which last year earned a coveted Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, she isn’t up for the role of the martyr.

“I don’t buy that we (CEOs) have the most stressful job,” says Schlichting. “In many ways, we get the easiest job. Everybody’s working to make us look good, you know? I think it’s much harder to be the chief nursing officer of Henry Ford Hospital. I think it’s much harder to be a surgeon who has to tell a patient’s family and a patient that they’re going to die. I try to put it in perspective.”

That may explain why it has become a ritual for Schlichting, at the end of each workday, to walk through the halls of her office, telling folks it’s time to go home.

“The one thing I know,” she says, “is if you have really good people, they’re going to do the work. But they’re going to do it better and with more joy if they know their lives are better integrated.”

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That philosophy applies first and foremost to the boss, who practices what she preaches. “I’ve taken all my vacation time for 35 years,” she says, without a hint of hesitation. “Never left one day not taken. Because that’s what it’s there for. And I always tell people, do the special things in your life that you need to be doing.”

Like many CEOs, Schlichting’s daily schedule is a tightly organized blur. “My day generally starts very early,” she says, “like at 5, and I do work at home before I come in because that’s my quiet time.”

Once she arrives at the office, anywhere between 7 and 9 a.m., she says, “it’s pretty much back to back to back to back.” So regular exercise, which she values as the best stress-reliever of all, can be difficult — if not impossible — until the weekend, when Schlichting can put in more time on her treadmill or, when the weather permits, take a long walk, a bike ride, or a swim in her pool.

“I know I’m stressed out if I have every ache and pain you can imagine,” she says. “My back hurts or I get a headache when I normally don’t. Typically, what I try to do is just slow down and make sure I get sleep, eat better, and try to pay attention to my body.”

If she’s at the office, that means taking little breaks from the routine. “There are times when I’ll sit there and just relax for a minute,” she says, “because it does help, especially when you know you have something difficult coming up — a meeting, a discussion. You know, you just try to get yourself prepared.”

She also walks as much as she possibly can, opting for the stairs over the elevator, and taking the long way to a meeting. “And I try not to check e-mails all the time,” she adds, “because you’re just reacting, reacting, reacting. I need to be a thoughtful person. There are a lot of reactors in this organization. I’m hopeful that I’m more of a thinker, a planner, and a strategist — not just reacting to every single thing. When you’re in a job like mine and you’re doing that, you’re not doing your job very well.”

Lawrence Frank — Coach,  Detroit Pistons, Auburn Hills

• It’s early afternoon at the Pistons practice facility in Auburn Hills, which means coach Lawrence Frank has already put in nearly 10 hours of work. “I start pretty early in the morning,” says Frank, with a no-big-deal shrug, “usually around 5 or 5:30. If it’s the day after a game, you’re going through all the tape and making edits you can show the team. Then we meet an hour and a half before practice, go over what we’re going to do with the staff, then we practice for two hours.”

On this day, practice has just ended. When Frank finally sits down to chat, he’s relaxed and voluble, pointing to exercise as an important stress-reliever, and admitting he doesn’t do nearly enough of it during the season. “I get some work in,” he says. “I run with our players and shoot around. When I have time, I do treadmill and I do core. But there’s really no excuse to not get in 30 minutes every day. I really should.”

His team finished a disappointing 25-41 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, his first with the Pistons. The team missed the playoffs for the third straight year. Frank’s previous job was at the helm of the New Jersey Nets for just over six seasons, the last three of which ended without a playoff appearance. What followed was an ignominious 0-16 run at the beginning of the 2009-10 campaign, which led to his firing. He did some TV work the rest of that year and spent the 2010-11 season as an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics.

He got the Pistons job late last summer and, following a labor dispute that pushed the beginning of the season back to late December, the team stumbled to a horrendous 4-20 start. Frank says he was undaunted by any stress or pressure brought on by the early futility. “You have to embrace it,” he says, “and you have to really enjoy the thrill of dealing with it.”

“I just like to bury myself in solutions,” Frank says. “Everyone knows what the problems are, so it’s a waste of time to be so locked into them. You have to grind every day and work to get better, knowing it’s not about instant gratification. It’s about persistence.”

That philosophy paid off when the Pistons pulled out of their swoon, and the team notched a roughly .500 record the rest of the way. Next up is the draft on June 28, where the Pistons have the 9th pick. To get to the next level, meaning a playoff appearance, the team needs a dominant player or two in the post to open more lanes for Rodney Stuckey, Ben Gordon, and Brandon Knight, as well as an athletic, aggressive small forward who can slash and score. They also need more firepower off the bench.

Throughout his first season, Frank was alone in Detroit. His wife and two young daughters remained in New Jersey for the school year. “That was the toughest thing by far,” Frank says.

“Thank God for the invention of FaceTime and Skype, because I can see them every night on the computer.”

When Frank gets to his condo near the Palace, usually late at night, he likes to unwind by reading, “mostly about leadership, coaching — different motivational-type stuff that can help me to be better for our team,” and watching movies. “I like comedies,” he says, “but I pretty much will watch anything just to get my mind off things.”

What a year it was: No family, minimal exercise, no personal life to speak of, and Frank is still bright-eyed and boyish at 41. So what’s his secret?

Turns out when Frank was a student at Indiana University he spent four seasons as a manager under another coach, the seething human volcano named Bobby Knight. “You didn’t want to be the reason why he was exploding,” Frank says with a wry smile. “So, yeah, that was stressful.”

Bud Liebler — Owner, The Whitney, Detroit

• It was 2001 and Bud Liebler had just left his job at Chrysler, where he had worked for 21 years. His last position was senior vice president of marketing and communications. “I always wanted to have an office downtown,” he says, “and I fell in love with the carriage house behind The Whitney and thought it would make a great office. One thing led to another, and I ended up with the whole shootin’ match — so here I am.”

He chuckles as he gazes around the spacious front room of what is frequently described as Detroit’s “most iconic mansion,” which not only features a celebrated restaurant, but more than 50 rooms that are utilized for a wide array of events. On a bright spring morning, traffic glides by on Woodward Avenue and sunlight streams through the windows as Frank Sinatra plays softly in the background.

“On any given week we might have 2,000 people in and out of here,” Liebler says. “Maintaining a place that is 21,000 square feet and 118 years old … the upkeep is incredible. There’s a surprise every day. You come in and find out there’s a pipe leaking in a second-floor closet, or something flooded in the basement.”

He shakes his head. Owning and operating a mansion is a challenge even during the best of times. There’s also a public relations and communications business, called Liebler Group, which he operates with his son, Patrick.

“I don’t know how you define stress,” Liebler says, “but I think you know when you’re under it. Life is stressful and I think life in Detroit the last five years has been especially stressful. I mean, when you come downstairs at lunchtime and see that you have more staff than you have people eating lunch, that’s stressful. So you gotta deal with it.”

Liebler does a lot of the familiar things to alleviate the stress in his life. He exercises every morning, takes long walks, and spends time with his wife and family (which includes 11 grandchildren) at his place up north on the Leelanau Peninsula. “But I think the one thing that’s been most consistent through my life is transcendental meditation. This is the first time I’ve ever talked about it, really.”

Liebler has followed the same ritual for the better part of 30 years. “I meditate twice a day, religiously,” he says. “Twenty minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening. And you go deep, deep, deeper into yourself and get into your own conscience. It clears your mind and weeds out the stress, and enables you to deal with it or get through it.

“Sometimes,” he adds, “I’ll take a deep breath, without trying, and I just feel like: Oh, there goes the stress. Whether that’s it or not, I don’t know. But that’s what it feels like to me. I think it’s been incredibly beneficial in my life.”

One of Liebler’s favorite books is Catching the Big Fish, a celebration of the immense benefits of meditation, written by famed film director David Lynch.

“He says there are fish at the top levels of the ocean or lake, and there are fish at the bottom levels,” Liebler says. “And the farther down you go, you catch the big fish, or the creative idea. And that’s what meditation helps you do. It stimulates creativity, clears the mind, and reduces stress.”

Which raises an obvious question: Was Lie-bler’s decision to buy The Whitney inspired by a “big fish” reeled in during one of his deeper meditative plunges? “Maybe,” Liebler says.

“That’s interesting. I think maybe it gave me the courage to do it. I mean, what the hell do I know about restaurants?”

He lets out another light chuckle. “I mean, if I could have foreseen the future in 2007, I probably wouldn’t have done it, knowing what the economy was going to be around here.”

Charles Pugh — President, Detroit City Council, Detroit

• It’s safe to say Charles Pugh began life dealing with more than his share of stress. His mother was murdered when he was 3 years old. Four years later, his father committed suicide.

“He was 32 and he put a gun to his head,” Pugh says. “I was right across the hall, heard the gunshot, and tried to give him mouth-to-mouth. He had a gaping hole in his head.”

Raised primarily by his grandmother, Pugh parlayed a successful career in broadcasting into his position as president of Detroit City Council — which, in recent months, has confronted the very real prospect of municipal bankruptcy. “When I first got this job, it was the most stressful six months of my life,” he says. “And I eat when I’m stressed. I ended up looking like that.”

He points to a poster on the wall behind him, depicting a grinning and much heavier — 55 pounds — version of himself in early 2010, squeezed into a suit and tie. “That was at my heaviest,” Pugh says, “right after I got elected. Over the next several months, I started eating more.”

Now he’s sitting on the couch in his downtown office, slim and casually dressed in slacks and an open button-down shirt. A banana and two oranges sit on the table in front of him. “I gotta eat a small meal every three hours,” he says. It’s all the result of a workout, diet, and weight-reducing regimen publicized by Pugh in a YouTube video that became controversial because it focused, in large part, on his infatuation with his newly discovered abdominal muscles.

“I got some criticism that the video was ill-timed,” Pugh says. “The city’s under financial stress and you’re talking about your abs. I say that’s the perfect time to talk about it.”

And then Pugh is on his soapbox, launching into what has become a familiar proselytizing rant on how anyone can reduce stress through diet and exercise, just as he did.

“We should never be sending a message that it’s OK to be too busy to work out,” he says, “or too busy to eat right, or too busy to be healthy or manage your stress properly. We are largely African-American here in the city of Detroit, which is one of the fattest cities in America. People are dying of heart attacks and the side effects of improper diet and no exercise.”

Pugh says he’s approached all the time by people who tell him they are inspired by his transformation, and he’s only too happy to share with them the dangers of belly fat, the joys of taking the stairs every day to his 13th-floor office, and the delights of his favorite foodie revelations.

“I’d never eaten blueberries when they weren’t in a muffin,” he says. “Never eaten Brussels sprouts. But I had grilled Brussels sprouts the other day, and I was like, this is some good s–t!”

Pugh chortles and leans back, catching the image on the TV screen, perched high in a corner, where someone is vigorously dicing tomatoes. “You see what’s on the TV?” he says, his eyebrows arching conspiratorially. “That’s The Food Network.”

Pugh leans in, back up on his soapbox. “I love the sound of chopping and the sizzle of the pan,” he says with relish. “That just relaxes me. And I make better decisions when I’m not stressed and stretched, so …”

He gestures again at the TV and grins. “You’re looking at the best kind of stress management I know, right up there.”

David Farbman — CEO, Outdoor Hub, Bingham Farms

• It’s an obvious question, one that occurs early in the exchange with David Farbman, a scion of Southfield-based Farbman Group, one of the largest and most successful real estate firms in the Midwest, and CEO of Outdoor Hub in Bingham Farms, the world’s leading online platform for outdoor enthusiasts, which generated $10 million in revenue last year.

So what does Farbman have to stress about?

He responds with a crack about the depressed state of the real estate business the last few years — “Have you been tracking it lately?” he wonders — then leans across his desk, eyes fixed on his interviewer. “I do wish I had as much cheese as everybody thinks I do,” he says. “That would be cool.”

And then he hastens to make his more pertinent point, which is that being the beneficiary of affluence and good fortune didn’t absolve him from unprecedented anxiety and stress when the lifelong outdoors-lover split off from the family business in 2006 to launch the World Hunting Association (WHA). “I always joke that I’m the only Jew in North America who hunts,” says Farbman with a laugh. “I’m like Ted Nugentberg.”

The idea of the WHA was to promote big-game hunting by starting a competitive hunting tour, with the hunters using tranquilizer darts instead of bullets. The fact that the action would take place inside a gated hunting reserve didn’t help matters, as many outdoors enthusiasts believed the concept lacked sportsmanship.

In short, it was an unmitigated disaster, as all varieties of protestors weighed in on Farbman — including environmentalists, animal lovers, and hunters themselves, who felt trivialized and threatened. The final straw was a typically pointed and amusing video by comedian Steven Colbert, who ripped into Farbman in rapid-fire succession.

“It was crazy,” Farbman says. “Whenever I felt (the stress) coming on, I learned to smile, stop for a second, and then literally go into a momentary state of meditation and picture myself up above, looking down on the situation, watching myself. And that allowed me to retreat from doing something I’d regret.”

It also helped him figure out how to turn the pariah that was WHA into what became the success story of Outdoor Hub, where he and his team assembled a network of more than 360 outdoor-themed websites that collectively attract 16 million unique visitors per month. The company makes money selling online ads to the likes of Chevrolet, State Farm, Energizer, and numerous outdoor-focused companies.

Hard work is the foundation of Farbman’s success, but there are other stress-relieving activities, starting with vigorous, pre-dawn plyometric workouts every morning. “It’s a cross between yoga, cross-fit, and cardio weight-training,” he says. “My belief is I sweat every day.”

But Farbman is also contemplative and open to different methods of what he describes as achieving “more balance” in his life. On this day, he’s sporting a band around his neck, called a Tornado. “It’s titanium,” he says. “I have some cervical issues from a car wreck in my 20s and it actually helps my neck feel better.”

Farbman also finds comfort and solace through his belief in reincarnation.

“I believe that in a past life I was a group karma healer,” he says, while also conceding he’s “pretty high-strung.” And given his passion for the outdoors, it’s not surprising to learn Farbman is most relaxed when he’s immersed in nature — spending endless hours on a dock, fishing for perch, or scanning the woods for morel mushrooms.

“Looking for morels is totally relaxing,” he says, with a satisfied smile. “I can shut everything else out when I’m doing that, and I can spot one 50 yards away.” db

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