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Cathy Harris

Executive stress- A Modern Malady

  • by Cathy Harris
  • 24 Nov 2016

Thrilled to bring you the first in a series of executive blogs by Cathy Harris from Key Change Coaching.

“I can’t sleep, I can’t think straight and I feel overwhelmed. And if people find out, they’ll think I’m weak and incompetent” …

Sadly, this is a common complaint I hear in my specialist coach-counselling practice. Not untypically, a corporate manager will turn up feeling anxious or depressed, and sometimes these feelings are accompanied by additional struggles to cope with panic attacks, addictions or events experienced as traumatic. The first reassurance I can offer is that they’re not alone. The Centre for Mental Health estimates that presenteeism (showing up for work, but not performing) due to mental health conditions results in a whopping bill to the UK economy of £15.1 billion per annum – throwing costs for absenteeism into relief at a (mere) £8.4 billion.  A recent Health and Safety Executive Labour Force Survey also makes for grim reading in revealing that through 2015/16, stress accounted for a hefty 37% of all work-related ill health cases, with respondents naming workload pressures, tight deadlines and lack of management support amongst the key culprits.  

These statistics sound a clarion call for HR professionals tasked with addressing the epidemic through workplace wellbeing strategies. But whilst there’s an obvious case for broadcasting the fact that mental health at work matters, if we want the message to be received, our companies need to tune into the facts about stress; what triggers it, how to spot it, and what to do about it. And most importantly, to learn that prevention is the best cure.  

Let’s start by busting a myth. Stress and anxiety - and the psychological distress that results - isn’t a sign of weakness and it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of. It’s simply an ancient, biological response to feeling under threat – part of a system designed to keep us safe. A certain amount of pressure at work keeps us focused. So, feeling anxious about a presentation can motivate us to prepare; feeling worried about job security might prompt us to look for alternative roles, feeling angry about a staff member’s behaviour could be the spur for that much-needed conversation. But it’s when these feelings are unresolved and levels of emotional arousal remain high over a longer period, then the accompanying stress hormones - adrenaline and cortisol - remain in our system for too long and prevent us from resting and digesting.  Chronic levels of stress are toxic, can compromise immunity and lead to burnout. 

Next, the million-dollar question; what are the triggers? In a nutshell, feeling consistently stressed rather than stretched by our work. To be stretched, we need to feel secure and in control, forge open and trusting relationships and experience a sense of achievement. This is a tall order though, when you consider that we’re wired for threat. Our biological survival mechanism (the brain’s ‘security guard’) evolved to help our ancestors to get the hell out of dodge when they faced being eaten alive. The system (which operates in a threat or reward-style binary code) worked a treat with dangerous predators and of course still does. Fortunately, corporate life presents few mortal threats, but unfortunately, this ancient ‘fight or flight’ mechanism often triggers off a disproportionate stress response in relation to things like change initiatives, job insecurity and difficult relationships. And when worrying about a potential risk turns into endless rumination, relatively minor hassles can morph into imaginary predators. Our brain doesn’t distinguish between a real or perceived threat. To quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet; “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. An imagined fear can feel as real and frightening as a sabre toothed tiger. And when our emotions are running high, our IQ literally drops. This explains why the ‘symptoms’ of being in ‘survival’ mode include feeling unable to concentrate or think straight, and why stressed executives are often seen to be ‘acting out’ in inflexible, defensive or aggressive ways.

Stress levels are further exacerbated by the fact that many company systems, processes and practices in a post-digital world don’t align well with human being design. In particular, digitally-enhanced performance or talent management systems and rankings which require people to ‘evidence competencies’ in line with unwieldy frameworks are fundamentally anti-social. Focusing on self-protective evidence-gathering requires negative introspection – all the ingredients for stress! No wonder Dr. David Rock of the Neuroleadership Institute likens the anticipation of a performance review to “the feeling you get down a dark alley when you hear footsteps behind you”.

An additional by-product of the vast amount of unsolicited information that lands in our inboxes daily is that we’re letting our fingers do too much of the talking. I regularly see minor issues (which could’ve been nipped in the bud early, in an old-fashioned conversation) escalating through unproductive email exchanges where people resort to second-guessing others’ motives and intentions, lose empathy and end up lashing out. The self-protective habit of email ‘blind copying’ further ups the ante by compromising privacy and making us feel unsafe. And when we’re lured into the trap of too many ‘all staff’ emails there’s a temptation for senior managers to get buried in detail and then end up micromanaging and overcontrolling. Inevitably, this has a knock-on effect on employee engagement -we’re problem-solving creatures, and we don’t think creatively in a mental straightjacket!

Most importantly though, we’re not designed to multi-task. There’s now a raft of evidence to suggest that in a world of information overload, unmanageable executive workloads are a prime stress trigger. Edward Hallowell, a US psychiatrist has coined the term ADT – or Attention Deficit Trait to describe the toll that information overload is taking on our mental health. The ultimate price of executive ‘overdrive’ and poor self-regulation can be seen in an increase in binge working, instant gratification, addiction, anxiety and depression at work.

The HR profession has a critical role to play in redesigning organisational practices and encouraging habits which create a hospitable climate in which people can flourish and thrive.  That’s for future discussion. But for now, a few simple brain-savvy stress-busters to start practising:

  • Learn to recognize your personal stress triggers and develop strategies to manage these. When you start to feel wound-up, take a break and concentrate on breathing deeply to calm down. Focus on making the outbreath longer than the inbreath, to stimulate relaxation.
  • Build in downtime. We work best in 90 minute bursts with 10 minute breaks. Our energy dips for a purpose – to allow us to process learning and recharge. If we push through these dips using energy boosts from caffeine and sugar, we elevate stress hormones and reduce our brain power. Less is more.
  • Switch off your phone and devices to allow you to focus on the important stuff. Don’t drain your ‘mental battery’ surfing your inbox.
  • Practise the habit of tuning into information from your gut.  When you notice anxious feelings and thoughts, reality-check your fears with a trusted colleague to gain a fresh perspective and support.
  • Finally, diet, sleep and exercise are the best medicine for stress. Regular exercise, like introducing a short walk into your working day, releases ‘feel good’ endorphins.

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