Written by: Maureen Adams, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
As an executive or senior leader, it can be tempting to believe that stress comes with the role and is something we need to learn to live with. Besides, it’s not always bad. Stress can enhance performance, right?
We know that ‘good’ stress can activate our bodies to release cortisol to help us gear up and perform. It’s the age-old’ flight or fight response to assist us in moments of danger.
We also know how ‘bad’ stress feels when we are so drained from being ‘always on,’ and one more activity feels like the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
The Gallup State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report cites employee stress at an all-time high.
So, how do you know when you have a reasonable amount of stress that you can manage and are not drifting into dangerous stress levels?
Do you need a better self-management system that gives you more energy and time for friends and family?
Types of Stress
MIND, the UK mental health charity, explains the difference between acute and chronic stress.
Acute stress happens within a brief time of a significant event. It lasts for a short time and is very intense. An example would be the shock of redundancy, depending on how it is managed.
Chronic stress lasts for a prolonged period or keeps coming back. This can be caused by a problematic relationship or an aspect of a work problem that is inherent to the role and can’t be avoided—for instance, product launches or presentations or the need to keep on top of enormous activity volumes.
There can also be additional chronic stress from being undervalued at work, and if this relates to identities, such as race, faith, or gender, the day-to-day stress can be compounded.
Here are five things that you can do:
1. Acknowledge and scale the stress level
Acknowledge the stress levels because, at best, they prevent you from performing well and drain your energy, and at worst, they can affect your sleep, health, and relationships as anxiety builds.
Scale the stress level at the moment by using one or more of these techniques.
Make a note of when the stress begins to take hold. If, for instance, you are preparing for a presentation or major meeting, does it start at the event or in the days and weeks leading up to it?
Score your activity and stress on a scale of 1 – 10, with 1 being no stress and 10 being so severe that you are experiencing serious and unpleasant physical symptoms, shakes, panic attacks, and feeling faint.
Keep a diary of when you feel stressed and notice the conditions that exacerbate it. This is valuable data that can help you begin to manage it. Scaling will help you prioritise what or who has the most impact and then look at ‘why.’
It is prevalent at the executive level, but it can be resolved.
2. Tune-in and Notice
For executives, whose usual modus operandi is to keep driving on regardless, it is helpful to look at the broader picture of lifestyle.
Notice which situations give you anxiety. Notice your physical state.
Are the sleeplessness and rapid heart rate exacerbated by constant adrenaline, or too many nights of late working, so that rest is a rarity?
Tune in to medical issues.
When was the last time you had a check-up?
Ask yourself whether a loss of physical confidence is leading to a loss of overall confidence. Menopause can be a challenging time. Organizations' attitudes to illness are changing, but we aren’t yet where we need to be.
Tune in to your mindset.
A growth mindset is fundamental to acquiring new insights and building influential relationships. With a growth mindset, challenges will look like opportunities; those barriers or blocks will pave the way for your success.
3. Pause, then Play
A stress response can sometimes arise from our reactions in situations where we are ‘triggered.’
Sometimes these triggers are longstanding issues from our past, but many are easy to access and resolve by self-regulation. Notice what comes up for you each time, name the emotion and then try to adapt your emotional response.
One of the best techniques for overcoming this is to pause before performing.
Suppose you notice your response and feel your stress moving up fast. Pause, and breathe in and out slowly for as long as you are able at that moment. Your body will relax, and your brain will calm. Focus on one object and notice it in detail so your mind is quietly engaged. Have a glass of water and drop your shoulders.
If you are in a situation where there is conflict, you may be angry. Pause. At this point, you have an emotional attachment to the situation.
It is helpful to remind yourself that this is a work-based conversation; it is about your role and your performance but not about you as a human being. Disagreements arise, but some elements of the conflict may well be triggers for both parties. Compromise can reduce tension, provide space for dialogue, and reduce stress.
The key here is to leave your ego at the door; a challenging request of any senior executive, but the one that will make the most difference. Play with less ego.
4. Activate your Self-Care Routine
As an executive, reducing or removing all stress is impossible, so an active self-care routine is essential to give your body a chance to recover.
It is usual for the body to experience rises and falls of cortisol which rises in the morning and reduces by the evening. The cortisol levels released through stress enhance performance and deal with an imminent threat. These are the very factors that are compromised at the executive level.
Managing your diary by reducing unpredictability and establishing blocks of time that will give you reliability and flow is very helpful. You will move into a more predictable way of working where you don’t have to worry about your schedule.
It is helpful to consider your well-being as part of your overall schedule of tasks. Schedule your exercise and stick to it as much as possible, even if only a gentle walk initially.
5. Positive Core Values
Changing your mindset doesn’t always have to be an ‘all or nothing’ situation because, more often than not, it’s achieved by making small increments. Be present at the moment – significant changes are performed by a tiny shift in how you see the world or yourself.
Begin to practice positivity. For every negative thought, try out a more positive response. It’s the ‘yes, and’ approach rather than ‘yes, but'.
If a staff member brings an idea you feel won’t work, take a positive element from their idea, acknowledge it, and add some helpful adaptations. As you run through your day, use self-talk containing positive words– repeat that mantra throughout your day to bring energy to your situation. A positive mindset will help you create positive boundaries.
Learn to accept that things will change; even if some items cannot be changed, at least you were willing to try. With every positive step, you will build on your core values, and whenever work gets challenging, always remind yourself why you took on the role and your sense of purpose.
If the stress is not reducing and you know it is entirely job-related, there is an obvious question:
Do you want to do something about it? You always have choices.
Get Support – Work with an Executive Coach or, if your level of anxiety requires it, a mental health therapist. Both will be committed to improving your well-being and your overall confidence.
The Best Time Is Now.
Maureen Adams, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Maureen Adams is an Executive Career Coach based in the UK. She works with ambitious senior professionals and leaders, facing complex challenges to have an impact at personal and organizational levels. As an experienced director herself, she has walked the path and helped others not only realize their potential through growth and change but to find their zest and redesign their lives. Maureen is the Founder of Cumulus Coaching UK.