Six Ways To Beat Executive Job Stress
Crushing economic pressure on your business, unrelenting competition, crazy work hours, downsizing, slashed budgets, uncertainty. Almost every organization has been trying to do more with less lately, and it’s taking a toll.
Executives and middle managers alike are exhausted by their brutal schedules and the intense demands on them. Business leaders may be relieved to be working at all, but they’re stressed out, anxious and sleep deprived. The result? Health problems, deteriorating relationships and weakened job performance.
When leaders are stressed, they usually don’t treat themselves or others well. Many busy executives have been self-medicating, with coffee, colas and energy drinks by day and a couple of drinks and a sleep aid at night. They overeat, or they don’t eat, or they eat the wrong things. Exercise quickly drops off their to-do list.
Stressed-out leaders take out their troubles on other people too. A quick temper at work or at home, angry or impatient responses, or an attitude of “If I’m suffering, everyone else suffers”–these are all too common.
To beat the negative side of stress, you have two choices: Reduce the strain or boost your ability to weather its effects. If you can find ways to cut down on the external pressures that cause your stress and overload, that’s ideal. But meanwhile, focus on improving your mental and physical ability to process stress.
Know your stress response. Pay attention to how your body reacts to stress. Do you feel your heart rate going up? Do you get hot? Do you clench your jaw? Do you get a headache or stomachache? The sooner you recognize that your body is responding to stress, the sooner you can do something about it.
Next, get a handle on your stress-induced patterns of behavior. Some people stick with their usual ways but do them louder, harder, faster or longer than is helpful. Others get unpredictable or act uncharacteristically when facing stress.
Do you know what you do when you’re stressed? Start to pay attention and see the patterns. Do you get overly emotional? Do you bury yourself in the detail? Do you find yourself getting quieter, louder, meaner or more distant?
Also, think about the effect your stress response has on others. Does your team feel threatened, left in the dark or dumped on? Do you slow things down, or do you ratchet up the pressure? Do you break commitments or take your stress out on people at home?
Exercise. You’ve heard it before, but it’s true. Regular exercise is the best way to stay physically healthy, and it also offers psychological benefits to counteract stress. Exercise can increase your sense of being in control, strengthen your self-esteem and help you regulate your emotions. It offers a healthy distraction from stressful situations while inducing the relaxation your body needs to dissipate its stress hormones.
Regular exercise also leads to improved effectiveness as a leader. In research involving executives around the world, we’ve found those who exercise regularly rate significantly higher on leadership effectiveness, as judged their bosses, peers and direct reports, than men and women who exercise only sporadically or not at all.
Get serious about fitness. If you’ve neglected your health, don’t wait until you have “more time” or “less stress” to make a change. Studies of senior executives have shown that among them 79% of men and 62% of women have two or more of risk factors, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure or too much body fat. See a doctor soon and start improving your eating practices by adding more fruits and vegetables and cutting down on added sugars, fats and sodium.
Build in stress breaks. More than 90% of leaders report that they manage stress by temporarily removing themselves, either physically or mentally, from the source of their stress. One way is by getting up from your desk and walking around or getting out for some fresh air every 90 minutes or so. Do some deep breathing or shoulder shrugs, or even just close your eyes for one minute.
Rethink the work. Look for ways to organize and streamline your tasks. Planning, organizing and prioritizing are effective stress managers. Other tactics include defining roles, clarifying expectations, managing project schedules and completing tasks ahead of deadline. Sharpening your focus is also helpful: Find ways to give the most effort and time to the most important tasks and priorities, in both your professional and personal lives.
Learn from professional athletes. You can actually do more in less time by practicing the art of recovery. Professional athletes understand that pushing themselves at 100% of their capacity 100% of the time results in little or no long-term performance gain. They build time to recharge into their training routines. You can do the same.
Do it by finding effective ways to set boundaries. Listen to music on your commute home. Turn off your cellphone and your e-mail during personal or family time. Take up a social activity or a hobby. Relaxing is critical for clear and creative thinking, strong relationships and good health. Know that the time and energy you spend away from work can enhance your productivity and your capacity to deal with things at work.
Breaking your habitual responses to stress isn’t easy. You may feel you don’t have time to exercise, eat right or reprogram your stress behaviors. But consider this: Your current high level of stress may be your new normal. That breakneck pace, that uncertainty, that increased responsibility–they may be yours to keep. If so, you must have good coping skills or trouble will find you sooner or later.
So begin with a small change (walking for 15 minutes each day) or a simple routine (counting to 10 when you’re angry), and build on it. A little effort will improve your ability to manage stress and lead through the change and challenge that have become inevitable in the lives of leaders.
Sharon McDowell-Larsen is a senior associate and exercise physiologist with the Center for Creative Leadership and a former U.S. Olympic Committee researcher. She is co-author of the book Managing Leadership Stress.