Stress is the silent killer and worry its poison – it’s the elephant in the boardroom, says Jeremy Campbell, who outlines some strategies to help leaders cope
Stress derails senior leaders, causing them to make poor decisions, incite unnecessary conflict and eventually to burn out. It is caused by a vicious cycle and difficult to break. Worry stems from our desire to control our environment, fuelled by our fear of failure.
At a senior level in business the trap is that the more we try to control, the more we will fail, and therefore the more we will worry. We need to break the cycle. The toll on the health of executives shortens their lives and stores up a myriad of mental and physical problems for them and their families.
Many stressed executives don’t realise they are in fact stressed. They are oblivious, in denial. The first question we ask is the medical one: “When did you last have a health check?” If you haven’t had one recently, you should get one now. If you are stressed, chances are it will reveal blood pressure out of control and anxiety on the march. That is often the first warning sign that convinces executives they need to change the way they work.
Here are five key areas where you can focus to tackle the issue:
- Pause and reflect – Build in time to your schedule where you can take a breath. The power of being able to pause is a potent pill in dealing with stress and worry.There are two different time-outs you need to diary every day. First schedule time to worry: take 15 minutes each day when you reflect on the things that you are worrying about. Consider your current course of action and whether you need to change tack. The second is the one where you switch off. This is time when you don’t worry; you don’t think about your corporate concerns and you give your mind and body a rest. You cannot always be on; we must recharge our batteries every day or they just run out. Yet most executives convince themselves that they are expected to operate at 110 per cent capacity. Busyness is a poor metric; focus is the real game changer – it is the quality and the impact of what you do that makes a difference.
- Separate what you can’t control – Much of what we stress about is not within our control. It is important to develop a mindset where you can separate these things from those we can influence. Macro-economics, geo-politics, changing trends in the market are not things that we can change; the only value we can bring is to make changes within our immediate world. Time spent worrying about the other stuff is time wasted. Being able to separate these two things in our mind is a crucial step on the path to reducing stress.
- Delegate & empower – Leaders cannot achieve anything alone; we all know that. Yet one of the most frequent topics for the executive coach is the leader who struggles to delegate to others and to empower their team. A key coping strategy in reducing stress and anxiety is to share the load. It is not you against the world – even though it may seem like that. Form alliances, play as a team, work together to conquer the challenges you face and it will all seem much less daunting.
- Build resilience – During the Covid pandemic more and more people focused on how to build personal resilience in anxious times. It was best described to me as, “you need to put your own lifebelt on before you can save the others.” Be kind to yourself; take care of yourself; be careful with your diet; get into a consistent regime of enjoyable exercise; and make sure you get ample sleep and recovery. There are many technology tools that can help you: apps like WHOOP, Dozee, and Oura, are wearables that track your health and monitor your strain. Consider using one of them and consider getting a coach. Being able to share your concerns with a critical friend who will hold a mirror up to your behaviour adds a new accountability, as well as a powerful aide to your performance.
- Use breathing exercises and meditation – The anxiety of the pandemic has seen a big bounce in demand for meditation. More and more executives are using meditation apps to relieve stress, reduce their heart rate and induce a state of calm at key points in their whirlwind schedules. It isn’t for everyone, but for those who find it works it can introduce you to a whole new world of stress control.
Everyone is different; one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to strategies for dealing with stress. The wise person will find out what works for them and make it part of their lifestyle. After all, it’s not just about work; it’s a matter of life and death.
Jeremy Campbell is an expert on behavioural science, an executive coach and the CEO of performance improvement and technology business Black Isle Group