What can leaders do to better manage stress? Here are a few tips and tools from a team of experts from the Center for Creative Leadership: Vidula Bal, Michael Campbell, Joan Gurvis and Sharon McDowell-Larsen.
Know the signals. Learn to pay attention to your body’s response to stress. What triggers a feeling of stress and what are your physiological responses? Do you feel your heart rate going up? Do you get hot? Do you clench your jaw? Get a headache? The sooner you recognize that your body is going into stress, the sooner you can do something to manage it.
Create a ritual. Make it a habit to have a stress break. For example, every 90 minutes get up from your desk and walk around or get out for some fresh air. Do some deep breathing, shoulder shrugs, or just close your eyes for one minute. Taking a mental or physical break is an important strategy for dealing with day-to-day stress. When things are extra stressful, you can rely on these same tactics to get you through.
Get away. Find effective ways to set boundaries between work and home life. Whatever works for you – listening to music on the commute home, turning off the cell phone and email during personal or family time, participating in a social activity or hobby – make time for it and keep your commitment to having a life outside of work.
Focus on fitness. A regular exercise program is the best way to minimize the negative health outcomes associated with the demands of the job. Under stress we build up certain hormones; exercise dissipates some of that. Make a commitment to exercising at least 30 minutes twice a week. Also, incorporate healthy practices such as adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet while reducing added sugars, fat and sodium.
Build a support system. Ask for help. Build a network of people who can assist you and alleviate some stress. Acknowledging that you are particularly stressed can ease the strain a bit, too. Other ideas include getting a coach to help you organize and prioritize your life. Or create your personal Board of Directors: a support group that will help you cope with stress and leadership. Ask a diverse group (peers, your boss, a family member and a trusted friend) to work with you to understand your goals around managing stress and help you stay on track.
Re-group on the task. When dealing with stress from task demands (as opposed to relationship challenges) one of the best strategies is to look for ways to organize and streamline your work. Planning, organizing and prioritizing appear to be effective ways to manage task-related stress. Defining roles and clarifying expectations, managing a project schedule and completing tasks ahead of deadline are other strategies. Gaining focus may reduce stress during a task as well as before a new task is started.
Recover. Do more in less time by practicing the art of recovery. Athletes have long understood that pushing oneself hard at 100 percent capacity, 100 percent of the time, results in little or no long-term gains in performance. Building in enough time to relax and recharge is critical for clear and creative thinking, strong relationships and good health. Make sure that throughout the day you are allowing yourself real and frequent breaks – at least a 10-minute break every 90 minutes. And leave the job behind: time and energy spent off-the-job can enhance your productivity and your capacity to deal with work challenges.
Re-define balance. Forget the idea of balance as finally having equal or sufficient time for everything: career, family, friends, community and leisure pursuits. Instead, start making clear choices that support your core values. Life balance is complex, not really something we can ever hope to accomplish. Demands and interests change over time, and what felt like balance at one point quickly becomes outdated. But if your life reflects who you are and what you value, you will feel more in balance – even when there isn’t enough time.
How Leaders Cope
Leaders deal with the negative effects of stress in a number of ways:
• Physical exercise is the most commonly cited method leaders use to manage stress.
• More than 90 percent of leaders cite that they manage stress by temporarily removing themselves, either physically or mentally, from the source of their stress.
• Most leaders use a variety of sensory or physical activities to manage stress: exercise, outdoor hobbies, music, games, television, etc.
• Stress caused by job responsibilities and decision making is often managed by finding ways to gain focus and perspective on the challenge: planning, project management, clarification.
Reprinted with permission from the Center for Creative Leadership, www.ccl.org