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Dealing with Leadership Stress

A common theme right now in the workplace is stress. “I am so stressed out” is frequently shared over coffee. Stress is a natural part of life, even helpful at times, but taken too far it can make you snap. Like a rubber band takes a certain amount of pressure to be useful, but it can break if stretched past its capacity.

Stress can be helpful or it can be very detrimental, depending on the kind. You may feel positive stress when you have an opportunity to interview for a new position and you know you are prepared to perform at your best. You have butterflies, sweaty palms, and your heart is beating fast. Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal credits stress with enhancing our creativity, fitness, immune systems, and problem-solving skills—as long as we handle it the right way.

Unfortunately, most people’s stress doesn’t come from excitedly anticipating a challenge; it’s mostly dreading something difficult, like trying constantly to do more with less. Most of the time, the stress is exacerbated by overthinking and fixating on experiences from the past or imagining scenarios in the future and attaching negative emotions to them. In fact, this kind of thinking is recognized as the number one stress magnifier. Leaders must limit the time they spend thinking about things that have no useful outcomes. Reflection is good, but resilience is dependent on not fixating on things you cannot control.

If you consistently feel stressed, your body is being affected in three ways:

  • Two hormones release into your body: Adrenaline, which causes your heart to speed up and build plaque on your artery walls, and Cortisol, which puts your white blood cell production on hold and suppresses your immune system.

  • Stress affects your attitude. The more you fixate on negative possibilities the more you verbalize your thoughts. Negative self-talk is detrimental to you and to the resilience and attitude of those around you.

  • You become less productive, and everything slows down.

How can you combat stress? Here are a few suggestions that are tremendously effective.

1. Recognize stress signals. Pay attention to your body’s responses. The sooner you recognize your body going into stress mode, the sooner you can manage it.

2. Make a list of healthy responses. Instead of trying to drown your stress with food or alcohol, responding angrily, numbing your feelings with mindless Netflix or the internet, make a list of positive responses. Exercise might be at the top of your list, like going for a walk or jog, or working out with friends. You might take a long shower, phone a friend, write in a journal, spend some time on a hobby, plan a vacation, or plan a project.

3. Take care of your body. Make sure you’re eating healthily and getting enough sleep. Don’t rely on fast food or the office vending machine during stressful times, and make sure you’re going to bed at a reasonable hour—even if you stayed late at work.

Add more fruits and vegetables into your diet, and reduce added sugars, fats, and sodium. Then make a commitment to exercise at least 30 minutes, twice a week.

4. Maintain boundaries between home and work life. Share your work hours and preferred communication channels with your team. Control as much as you can of your schedule so you can live with intention both at work and at home. Your team and your family will all be happier and more satisfied, and that will directly impact your stress. Set limits on when you will answer emails and take phone calls. Being connected 24/7 adds to stress immeasurably.

5. Learn to switch off. Deliberately create time in your calendar that is space for you to enjoy being you. Practice relaxing. Create periods of time, briefly daily/weekly, and then longer, too, when you can just enjoy what YOU enjoy.

6. Create a personal board of directors. Create a support team made up of peers, a family member, and trusted friends, a co-worker or boss. Give them full permission to monitor your work and stress level to help you stay on track.

7. Focus on the present. Regularly pull yourself back and ask, “What can I control right now?” Then work on that.

8. Eliminate interruptions. Turn off all the sounds for notifications on your smartphone. Turn off the alert on your email and try only checking once an hour or two. Try putting a “do not disturb” sign on your office door or the back of your chair. When you are able to focus more completely, stress diminishes.

9. Schedule your day more realistically. Often we will put on a daily “to-do” list five or six tasks that will take a minimum of two hours to accomplish. That guarantees that five and six won’t happen and we will feel stressed. Schedule what you can reasonably do and let the steam out of the pressure-cooker.

10. Prioritize—then follow it. Determine what is most important and timely. When someone has given you too much to do, ask them plainly, “Since I will not be able to get both of these things done today, which is most important to you for me to do first?” Do that to yourself as well.

11. Do one positive thing. Find one positive thing you can do right now, even if it’s just finding the humor in the situation—there always is some! You might make a list of the things you can do, or people who might have input. But doing one thing is encouraging and keeps you from feeling stuck.

12. Practice the art of recovery. Athletes know that pushing at 100% for 100% of the time accomplishes nothing. Throughout the day give yourself frequent breaks. Get up, walk around, go outside for fresh air. Unplug for awhile after a big project is completed. This will help relieve the stress in the moment and prepare you for the next time period to have less stress.

Stress can be a killer in every way, but it doesn’t need to be. You were created for resilience. Take the right steps and you can be strong and lead strong into the future.

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