I figured it was about time we share some tips on stress management for CEOs. But why something so specific? Well, I spend a fair bit of time around business executives and c-suite leaders through my role as a lead facilitator. From my observations, the higher up you are in an organisational hierarchy, the more stress you experience in your role.
This isn’t breaking news, but it had to be said.
Why CEOs should prioritise recovery.
While it’s a well-known and accepted fact, when you stop and think about the potentially catastrophic ramifications of a stressed-out CEO on the verge of burn out, it’s pretty scary.
CEOs are the people who organisations, not to mention shareholders, are relying on to make decisions and steer the ship in times of challenge. In saying this, if they are the very people who are most likely to be stressed, how well equipped are they to effectively lead when times get tough?
The short answer is, probably not as well equipped as they could be.
How does stress impact a CEOs output?
Stress, while not inherently a bad thing, has the propensity to affect all sorts of leadership capabilities from decision-making to management. Although we can say that a higher degree of stress and pressure should be expected with the corner office, the ability to manage that stress should be an area of focus for any executive.
To be clear, in this article I’m talking about managing stress, not trying to get rid of it entirely. A common misconception about stress is that it’s an inherently bad thing and if we don’t rid ourselves of it then we are going to suffer more illness and live shorter lives.
While it’s true that prolonged stress certainly has been linked to these outcomes, stress in its simplest form is a completely natural and healthy biological response to pressure. Harnessing stress can be an effective performance edge for any executive.
What’s the difference between bad stress and good stress?
When stress is a bad thing:
• When you feel significantly stressed for a prolonged period (more than a few days)
• When you have a toxic relationship with stress (you feel like it is detrimental to your health and happiness)
• When stress makes you feel overwhelmed and anxious
When stress can be a good thing:
• When you experience short bursts of stress in appropriate times (like before delivering a presentation to the board, or during a tough negotiation)
• When you have effective strategies for de-stressing after a time when the pressure has been on
• When you feel that stress helps you to be more alert and gives you a performance edge
How to reduce your stress levels.
So, as an executive how can you cut down on the ‘bad’ stress and channel a bit of the performance-enhancing stuff? Here are some practical strategies that I teach to execs in our Science of Recovery program.
Step #1: Work on your relationship (with stress)
There’s been some fascinating research over the last few years that have shown that phrases like ‘the stress is killing me’ may be causing you more harm than the stress itself.
When you experience stress and believe it is something that will harm you, it’s more likely to put you in harm’s way. Whereas when you perceive stress as something closer to a performance enhancer or simply a natural response to pressure, you are less at risk of the more negative effects of stress.
Check out Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk on the topic to learn more about this phenomenon:
How do you improve your on-the-rocks relationship with stress? Watching your language is a good place to start. Simple reframes like turning ‘stress is killing me’ to ‘stress helps me to be at my best when I need to’ is a simple yet effective way to change your thought patterns, and over time, your beliefs.
Are there things you think and feel about stress than you could reframe to be more positive?
Step #2: Take time to transition
One reason why executives’ experience prolonged stress is they don’t allow themselves to process and ‘come down’ from a stressful moment or experience.
Getting tactical about how you manage transitions from one meeting to another (or from work to home) is a great way to ensure that you don’t carry stress with you for longer than is beneficial.
One great strategy shared by Harvard Business Review is to give yourself 10 minutes to transition from work to home. Although this can seem like an unaffordable luxury to those of us who claim to be ‘time-poor’, it’s an investment in stress management that will pay off big time.
The best part about this technique is that by being more present for those who matter most to you, you’ll maximise your recovery time and perform better at work the following day.
Step #3: Build recovery into your workday
As an executive, there’s a medium to high chance that you pride yourself on being someone with great mental endurance and capacity for focus.
The truth is though, due to our chronobiology, we have to take a break approximately every 90 minutes to perform at our best. As experienced as you may be in gritting your teeth and muscling through the day, it’s actually in the interest of your health and performance that you take a couple of minutes to recover as you go through the day.
Interested in the concept but worried about the practicality of it? Here are some quick bullet-point suggestions for recovery during the workday:
• Stand up for at least 60 seconds per hour
• Stand up and walk to get a glass of water every hour (hydration + movement = double whammy)
• Schedule an alarm reminding you to sit with good posture and take 10 deep breaths
• Schedule in a HIIT workout or brisk walk in your lunch break
There you have it. Practical tips for bucking the trend of stressed CEOs and channelling pressure to get a performance edge. Want to learn more about stress, recovery and all things peak performance? Check out our other blogs on the topic.