How to overcome executive stress in the workplace

Written by
Sue Paterson

21 Dec 2015

21 Dec 2015 • by Sue Paterson

Stress is the body's reaction to a stressor that changes the body's equilibrium. How can executives overcome stress in the workplace?

What is stress?

Stress is a mental and physical response that mobilises the body’s emergency resources – ‘flight, fight or freeze’ - by flooding the body with hormones to arouse it to meet the challenge. When in the grip of a stress response, the capacity for rational thinking diminishes, and the brain shifts its focus and attention to dealing with the stressor instead of focusing on the tasks in hand.

Stress can be good for you – it can keep you on your toes.  Reasonable levels of stress can motivate you to change or adapt; stress pushes you to learn new things and new ways of doing things and learning new things. Human bodies are designed to handle small amounts of occasional stress, which can provoke individuals to improve performance.

But when the stress becomes significant and persistent, the body cannot cope; high levels of stress can be very bad for you. The hormonal surges that are released when a body is stressed have the ability to weaken the immune system, affect the cardiovascular system and damage chromosomes related to cancer cells and ageing, resulting in a wide range of physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, chest pain and frequent colds. The ability to take in information and to learn is impaired, and anxiety and depression are also common. 

Executive stress in the workplace

Executives are particularly susceptible to stress. Common stressors include high pressure to perform, long working hours, and managing complex issues such as trying to maintain profits in difficult commercial conditions, or working with limited resources.

The ability to cope with stress is highly personal and depends on the individual’s biology, as well as their experiences, relationships and support mechanisms. Early life adversity for example, may make a personal more vulnerable to stressors later in life. The lack of a social support network will mean the person cannot put the stressor into perspective, making it harder to deal with.

But recent neuroscientific research is showing that there are concrete actions executives can take that will help them to deal with stress.

The adaptive power of the mind

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The brain has the ability to change its structure and function by strengthening or reducing the neural connections within it. This capacity is called neuroplasticity and means that mind-set, behaviour and associated stress need not be fixed.  Creating new neurons or new pathways in different parts of the brain is hard work and takes time, but by consciously making daily choices of positive emotions and learned optimism, neural networks associated with anxiety and stress can be weakened.

Research has shown that any type of meditation can profoundly and permanently change the way different parts of the brain communicate with each other. Try this three-minute breathing exercise from Ruby Wax, who was a key speaker on 'A Sane New World' at the 2016 Future Talent Conference.

MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the amygdala (associated with fear, emotion and the body’s response to stress) appears to shrink as if it becomes less activated. At the same time, the pre-frontal cortex (associated with awareness, attention and decision-making) becomes thicker. How these two areas are connected together also changes: the connections between the amygdala and the rest of the brain get weaker, whilst the connections between the areas associated with attention get stronger.

Physical activity

Physical activity works off the biochemical and physical changes that occur in the body due to stress, and the body can be made to feel as if it is dealing with the stressor. For example, aggressive activities like kickboxing or punching bags simulate ‘fight’, and aerobic exercises like jogging or swimming imitate ‘flight’, thereby reducing the level of stress hormones in the body.

Supporting the immune system is essential when the body is under stress, so eating well and getting enough sleep are of paramount importance.

Executives may find themselves to be highly in demand by just about everyone in the workplace, and it can be hard to find free spots of time or periods of routine. Time is a precious commodity, but explore your work diary for opportunities and consider whether a personal trainer might help.

If you're really at a push, try these 9 simple desk exercises to help improve your health and wellbeing.

Social contact and honest communication

Social contact helps on various levels. When interacting with trusted colleagues at work or loved ones at home, social contact generates the trust/love emotions that help the individual to feel connected and less fearful.

Talking honestly to trusted friends and family also help to see stressors in a different light, which may reduce the stress response. Stress is contagious, so it is better to avoid anxious people.

Reducing employee AND executive stress in the workplace

Leaders seeking to reduce stress in the workplace are no doubt aware that the small and simple fixes are often those most deeply appreciated by employees. Those simple fixes can benefit people at executive level, too.

A 2016 poll on reducing stress in the workplace indicated the following methods create a more relaxed work atmosphere:

  • Clean and tidy desks and personal workspaces
  • Flexible working
  • Early finishes on Fridays
  • A separate space to relax/eat during breaks
  • Music playing

Improved work practice and leadership

Are you familiar with the concept of corporate mindfulness?

You can take care of your mind and body, but the workplace-based causes of stress may remain. You may be need to identify and remedy exterior causes of stress as well as regulate yourself internally.

To reduce executive stress in the workplace, it may help to be mindful of the following:

If questions like these resonate with your needs and frustrations, Changeboard has a wide range of leadership advice and wellbeing at work resources to help you maintain your mental health in the workplace and be your best - for both your personal and professional development.