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How Real Leaders Deal With Stress

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When many leaders describe their life, they use three words: stress, overwhelm, and dread.  Does that sound familiar to you?

You are not alone. An early survey of 118 top executives of European companies found 25% of them felt at risk of burnout. Twenty years later, in 2018, in a survey of 827 executives, over 50% reported high-stress levels related to work, family, and health in that order. You may not be at the executive level, but stress is a problem throughout modern workplaces; work is the major source of stress for most Americans.

Here’s how one professional described the spiral into stress: “I didn’t know how to make a budget…. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I had no clue how to read a profit and loss statement or a balance sheet…. I was attending multiple continuing education courses…. [Work] had exploded. I went from 36 hours of office time to 54+ hours a week…. I developed chronic sinus headaches…. [But] I was so busy I didn’t dare miss a day of work.”

If you want to deal with your stress, make the following critical changes.

Take Charge of Your Time

Schedule downtime time into your life. To prevent and deal with stress, you need opportunities to step back, think, relax, take in new experiences, focus, and concentrate on something other than work. If you accept every interruption, commit yourself to answer every email and text message immediately, and refuse to leave your desk for a cup of coffee, you are heading directly for stress-induced physical pain, depression, and anger.

What good are you to your team, coworkers, friends, and family if you are constantly stressed, distracted, and unhappy?

On the other hand, regular breaks and new experiences open up your mind to new possibilities. They reduce stress and also allow you to confront the issues that cause your stress.

Many studies have proven that people who return to work after a short break or a long vacation are more productive and more creative than those who refuse to stop.  Researchers have found that people who take vacations are more likely to get a raise (37% compared to 31%) and be promoted (84% compared to 78%).

TIP: Taking charge of your time benefits not only you but your company.


Stop Tolerating

You cannot control everything—you cannot turn every disgruntled worker into a star employee, you cannot predict every risk, you cannot resolve every disagreement so that everyone is happy. Turn your efforts to what you can control and leave the rest to work itself out. If you blame yourself for everything and feel you must fix everything, you will rapidly burn out. Do the other people involved want or even need your interference?

A leader found relief when he finally admitted, “Everything that goes on in my office is not my fault; for example, there are underlying issues between team members.” He added, “Sometimes it’s difficult when you’re in the middle of a problem to see everything going on. You need a different perspective.”

If someone’s behavior adversely affects you or your relationships, you have a right to establish boundaries to deal with stress. For example, if a team member constantly arrives late or not at all for meetings, you should refresh that individual on team and company policy and expectations and possible consequences rather than tolerating excuse after excuse.

In determining what is and what is not under your control, you may find it helpful to think about worst cases. What is the worst that can happen if you act? If you don’t act? If you seek help? Is there something you can do to prevent or soften the effects on you, your work, or your relationships?

Take Care of Yourself

Chronic stress isn’t your staff standing in a line outside your office wanting to ask you ridiculous questions, the pile of bills you stuff in a portfolio for the bookkeeper to decide which ones to pay, or the difficult customer you would rather dismiss than talk to.  Chronic stress is an internal, biological, physiological, chemical reaction that is part of your autonomic nervous system with clear and identifiable symptoms.

Ignoring the warning signs of chronic stress leads to headaches, forgetfulness, fatigue, mood swings, sleepless nights, indifference, depression, burnout, and more. But we can’t change what we don’t acknowledge.

When you take care of yourself—you exercise more, treat the consequences of years of tension (for example, back pain and headaches), and get professional help for tasks and situations that stress you—you renew your energy and your ability to see solutions. You can begin to deal with stress realistically. Otherwise, you may insist on solving problems without help or refuse to believe that anyone can possibly help—which increases your stress and the stress of those around you.

As business owner stated, “Employees react to a leader’s stress levels. I expected my employees to do everything in a very certain way. I learned to let employees work on their own terms and that freed me to work on my business instead of in my business.”

TIP: Stress spreads. When you are stressed, so are the people around you who have to deal with your moods, distraction, and denial.


Accept Help

When you are stressed, the help you need may not be psychological. You may benefit at home, for example, by handing over your personal tax preparation, home chores or repairs, and car maintenance to other family members or to professionals. At work, you may benefit from asking a better skilled team member to take over part of a project (say, fact checking or research or phoning a difficult customer) that you find particularly stressful.

One professional was able to deal with stress by simply admitting that he hated team leadership and preferred to be working on his own projects. He was glad to hand back a promotion that he found too stressful and let someone else take that position.

Your willingness to ask for help, whether at home or at work, may run into the social stigmas attached to stress, as well as the fear that your pursuit of help may lead to charges of “weakness” or “lack of ability.” To some people, seeking help is an admission of failure and fraud.

When a business owner found herself overwhelmed by lack of support at home and in the office, she sought professional help and mentorship in determining how to cope. “We changed vacation time so I was always fully staffed,” she reports. “We changed scheduling. My productivity went up, my overhead dropped about 15 percent, and my profit is way up.” Those practical changes not only reduced her stress but helped her and her company stay competitive.

TIP: Delegation at work relieves the pressures on you, builds the skills of your team, creates a career path for them, and ensures the company has backup when can’t be present. Everyone wins.


Have a Plan

Stress can sneak upon you and you may find yourself dismissing symptoms of stress as temporary or something you need to get over. You may feel that nothing you are experiencing rises to the level where you need help.

Your first steps in recognizing your stress should include:

  • Asking a friend, relation, mentor, or other person you trust whether they have seen signs that you are stressed.
  • Examine your day to day schedule to determine whether you have neglected the core value of taking care of yourself.
  • Identify people and situations that add to your stress.

If you feel you need more support, ask your primary physician, mentor, or friends for recommendations depending on the type of support you feel would help most. Keep track of your level of stress before it escalates into chronic anger, chronic stress, or depression. If you find yourself relying on drugs, alcohol, or any form of self-harm, seek help.

When you recognize your stress, assess your stress, and are ready to reduce your stress, you will find your energy and passion for life again and you will give your company, team, family, and friends the truly wonderful gift of your fully mindful presence.

Key Takeaways

Real leaders know that that stress negatively affects their relationship with their team, chances for advancement, decision-making ability, and leadership skills. They take steps to recognize, assess, and reduce stress, including taking control of their time and themselves.

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