If more executives understood the costs and consequences of stress, I doubt it would be the problem it is. During my 21 years of working with executives, I've observed that most of them don't see the ripple effects of what stress does to them and their organizations, and fewer still know what to do when they recognize it.
Most execs are expected to have the attributes of Superman - such as being able to leap tall problems in a single bound. The truth is, most can do that. Many executives are cut from a cloth that is quite capable of handling whatever problem comes before them. That is their strength.
But every strength has a corresponding weakness, and one of the weaknesses in that executive cloth is not recognizing the costs and causes of stress.
The reality of stress
Call it what you want; stress, fatigue, tension, it doesn't matter. But if I could sum up the common thread I observe in all sources of stress, it would be a sense of losing control. For example:
- When our computer doesn't do what we want it to we may sense a loss of control, but we describe that loss of control as stress.
- If the number, pace, or size of the projects before us gets to where we can't keep track of everything, we sense a loss of control, but we call it stress.
- When we realize we don't have the answers everyone thinks we should have, we may sense a loss of control, but we call it stress.
- When we start working extra hours to make sure nothing slips through the cracks, we struggle to maintain control, but we tell everyone we're experiencing stress.
We use that word because execs are expected to be like Superman, and it's taboo for Superman to appear out of control.
This is not to suggest that the difficulties before us are not real. According to Business IQ, a survey of 2,000 senior executives found that their most stressful challenges are:
- Getting employees to embrace and initiate change
- Filling the organization with "A" Players, not "good enough" employees
- Growing and selecting managers who can execute and achieve results
- Getting employees to act like "owners" instead of "renters"
- Getting everyone to understand and execute the strategy without resistance or excuses
I have no doubt each of these challenges slow down the flow of business and bring about stress. But at the core, the executive is trying to gain (or maintain) control over how to bring each desire to reality. The word "stress" is simply a socially-acceptable way of describing the angst occurring within. Our image of Superman is that he's always in control.
Findings from the National Study of the Changing Workforce show that we are now working at least 160 hours more per year than we were 25 years ago. The majority of us now use laptops and mobile phones to work from home in the evenings, on weekends, and while on vacation. Ironically, all this activity to stay in control just adds to our stress.
The stress resulting from our diminishing sense of control has a high price. In addition to alienated children, damaged friendships, and/or failed marriages, research posted on StressCosts.com indicates that the financial cost of stress to industry in the United States alone is more than $300 billion annually.
What's worse, at the executive level stress often becomes chronic - and chronic stress (the feeling of losing control) leads to depression (the feeling of control being lost). If you don't think this can happen to you, think again. Over 18 million Americans are affected by depression at any point in time, and most never seek treatment.
This "not seeking treatment" problem is especially true of senior executives, usually because they're afraid of being labeled weak. They think nobody will believe in Superman if he's found to be suffering from depression. As a result, 90 percent of senior executives who are depressed continue on undiagnosed and untreated.
But whether it's due to socially acceptable stress or the unfairly stigmatized diagnosis of depression, stressed-out executives tend to make bad decisions. Bad decisions lead to ineffective actions, which lead to frustration, which leads to bad attitudes, which leads to aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior, despair, employee turnover, and, well, the vortex just gets deeper and deeper. The intangible costs are deep and far-reaching: It's estimated that stress-related issues consume at least 20% of a company's payroll.
What to do
Some companies have addressed stress by trying to lighten the load or alleviate some of its symptoms. Perks such as company-sponsored childcare, yoga classes, or exercise rooms are certainly helpful, but they do little to address the root issue - giving the executive a genuine, practical, effective sense of control over his or her area of responsibility.
One very powerful approach is self-awareness. In other words, we must be aware of our personal strengths and our blindspots. And with that, we need strategies for how to compensate for the blindspots. Many companies are getting excellent results in alleviating executive stress by teaching interpersonal skills (such as Emotional Intelligence) and other work-management tools.
Considering that at the executive level, Emotional Intelligence is four-fifths of the difference separating top performers from average performers, so it only makes sense for executives to become proficient at it. Also, some of our fellow executives have never learned how to delegate effectively or how to prioritize their work.
There is no shame in learning new things. In fact, it sets a tone that productive learning is good for the entire organization. Think of it this way: The more you're engaged in learning, the more successful you'll be at leading.
Spending more time in personal planning is also a powerful stress-buster. This practice has paid huge dividends in my own work life. The 30 minutes I now spend planning each morning results in higher levels of productivity and a stronger sense of confidence in my decision-making, which helps keep stress in check.
Another stress-buster is spending more time communicating the big picture throughout your organization. Let people know what's going on! If the picture of success in your head is different from the picture of success that permeates the rest of your organization, stress is inevitable.
A few more suggestions
Take a moment and review the five most stressful challenges identified by Business IQ (listed above), and then consider this: If we planned better on each of those items and communicated the big picture more throughout our organization, the stress from all five of those items would be decreased - in just two suggestions!
My final suggestion may be the most important: Don't kid yourself into thinking you can come out of heavy stress or depression all by yourself. Superman is a fictional character; you live in reality. If you believe stress is affecting you negatively, and especially if you feel like you've lost all control, get some professional input.
A good executive coach or a consultant will serve as an objective third party to help you examine your workflow and the way you communicate within your organization. You may even want to have a talk with your doctor. But I guarantee you this: Whatever time and money you devote to combating stress will more than come back to you.
Granted, what I've listed here are just a few suggestions to help you regain control and alleviate stress. A coach or consultant can help you identify specific actions unique to your situation. I know that many execs believe they need the attributes of Superman so they can fix everything by themselves, but I'll say it again: Superman is a fictional character.