It is no secret that executing the role of a CEO is a stressful undertaking. When you throw in a global pandemic, CEO stress reaches unprecedented and uncharted levels. Still, it is more important than ever to lead by example and manage pressure to thrive in the face of upheaval. So, to that end, the following ten strategies can help CEOs and C-Suite not just manage but master stress in these challenging times and beyond.

Developing personal stress mastery skills such as the following will enhance senior leadership’s abilities in the pandemic recovery stage and support revitalization and renewal for themselves and their employees.

Slow Down to Speed Up

While it may seem counterintuitive, the first few tips of stress mastery actually involve slowing down.

It can feel strange to press pause when your to-do list is miles long, but evidence shows it’s the healthiest—and most productive way—to cope and move forward.

More than ever, CEOs, executives and middle managers are trying to cut costs and push productivity. They’re stressed and running on empty. Plus, according to Debra Nelson, an expert in the executive-coaching world, CEOs face additional stressors because, in addition to the fast-paced work lives they lead, they may also have to execute downsizing orders and become socially isolated in the process. (As they say, it can be lonely at the top.) [1]

As a result, they are less fresh for their job, they are not managing employees in the most effective manner, and their health can deteriorate. [2]

Research suggests the best way to boost health and become a more effective CEO is to master stress.

That means replacing the caffeine quick fixes and carb-laden, grab-and-go foods with whole foods, nourishing meals, and restorative sleep rituals. Equally important, exercise needs to get back on that to-do list and not de-prioritized or pushed aside. [3]

Shift from Feeling Guilty to Healthy

There are two ways to manage stress: get rid of stressful tasks—something that CEOs can’t really do—or boost one’s own ability to make it through stressful times. Since sleep and exercise can lower a person’s cortisol levels (one of the stress hormones), focusing on self-care is vital for CEOs to stay strong, especially in stressful times. So, take a break, a walk, and then get back to that to-do list.

A VP of an international transportation company I coached a few years ago shared the following with me as part of my research for this article. 

“I had so much tension in my body that restorative yoga and cycling felt like micro vacations. I felt odd at first cutting off the phone and email for an hour. I then realized how absurd my feelings were, and that in reality, I should be celebrating my efforts. I even started telling people that I was not available for an hour, or I missed calls to get in my fitness break. Most importantly, I made the shift from feeling guilty to feeling healthy.”

Unique Contributors to CEO Stress – Know Your Stress Warning Signs

As posited earlier, CEOs face stressors that few others will ever experience. For that reason, it is critically important for them to recognize personal stress warning signs—doing so can help them stop, assess, and hopefully slow down before things get out of hand.

Each person experiences his or her own unique, involuntary reactions or physical responses to stress. For example, one person’s neck muscles may tighten, others may unconsciously clench their jaw. Another person might experience physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomach pain. The key takeaway here is to recognize YOUR stressors and early warning signs to facilitate a quick intervention.

Choosing Your Stress Response

After becoming attuned to personal stressors and stress warning signs, it is crucial to decide how to react to them effectively. Yes, we can build insights and skills in how to respond to stressors in our work and personal lives proactively. 

For example, at the first sign of neck or back tension, or a headache, it is essential to pause and assess what may be contributing to these physical symptoms. Maybe we have overloaded our workday, failed to delegate or reprioritize our work or neglected to take a wellness break during the day to recharge our mind and body.

Equally, if not more important in managing stress and choosing an appropriate stress response, is to identify those things that are within and outside of our circle of influence and control. 

We can also choose to proactively respond to stress or help mitigate it by practicing stress mastery techniques such as the 4-Part Breathing technique, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), listening to a favourite song, taking a quick walk outside, or calling a loved one. The key here is to engage in a technique that helps relax and calm you.

In the short term, stress can sometimes be helpful as illuminated below by Kelly McGonigal —a stress response may help CEOs meet tight deadlines or make challenging decisions. But, if stress is unaddressed for several days or longer, cortisol levels can and often will build up in the body. This can take a significant toll on physical well-being, not to mention one’s ability to perform effectively as a senior leader.

For these reasons, Stanford University lecturer and psychologist Kelly McGonigal suggests a different approach in her famous TED Talk, “How to Make Stress your Friend.”

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According to McGonigal, we can make stress work for us. How? By allowing stress to energize and propel us for “short periods” and then embracing stress mastery techniques to effectively deal with ongoing stressors before they become chronic and lead to health problems. 

Based on her research and scientific studies, McGonigal reveals that we can actually build resilience and boost oxytocin levels in our body when we make stress our friend. (Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter associated with loving feelings but can also help us address challenges, build social connections, and regenerate our heart cells.) In essence, by allowing our bodies to experience small bursts of stress but never letting stress levels stay constantly elevated, we can use our body’s stress response to perform our jobs more effectively. [4]

Cracking the “Stress Mastery” Code

In addition to (1) slowing down, (2) identifying our stress warning signs, and (3) making stress our friend, the following strategies shared by leading CEOs and others, offer simple yet powerful opportunities to master stress.

4) Watch your words: Instead of saying “your stress is a killer,” tell yourself that “you’ve got this.” Research suggests that positive self-talk can change your body’s physical stress response. [5]

5) Embrace the in-between. According to the Harvard Business Review, CEOs are encouraged to take 10 minutes to transition from work to home and vice versa. Setting aside this period will help keep stressors from each location firmly in their zone and impede crossover stress from occurring. [6]

6) Schedule breaks. Every 90 minutes, take a 5–10-minute wellness break (i.e., frequently referred to as “microsteps” by Arianna Huffington.) [7]

  • Stand up, stretch, move around for at least 60 seconds (or longer)
  • Walk to get a glass of water
  • Reset and practice your best seated or standing posture and take ten deep breaths

7) Get More Sleep. Arianna Huffington also maintains that an effective day at work begins the night before. “There is that special glow after a good night’s sleep when you feel really in the zone,” she said in a 2013 interview. “You feel like, ‘Bring it on’ — you know I can handle anything!’ ”[8]

8) Get quiet. When you want to scream at the world—or one individual—find a quiet spot (even a bathroom stall if that’s all that’s available), then close your eyes and breathe. [9]

9) Leave the desk in your dust. This idea comes from Jack Dorsey, Twitter co-founder: make sure to build out-of-office walks into your day. You’ll gain a whole new perspective when you’re not staring at your papers or computer. [10]

10) Plan for tomorrow. This one goes back to feeling in control. Before your week begins, plan which tasks need to happen and when. Then, at the end of every workday, map out what’s changed for the day to come. You’ll walk into your morning feeling prepared for all that comes your way.

Implementing these stress-mastery techniques can lead to significant payoffs in your personal life—and your organization. Enlightened CEOs such as Gary C. Bhojwani of Allianz Life embrace stress mastery to optimize individual, organizational, and customer/client success. Bhojwani shares, “I deal with stress by focusing on solutions.” [11] In the end, isn’t this what we are all ultimately pursuing for ourselves and those in our care?

To learn more about “Stress Mastery” training and executive coaching solutions for yourself or your organization, check out our short video and explore our programs at www.workplacewellnesscoe.com or reach out to us at info@workplacewellnesscoe.com.

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About the Author:

Lisa Kelly, President, Workplace Wellness Centre of Excellence (a division of KWC Inc.), has been cultivating healthy changes with organizations and clients for over 20 years. Through her “Workplace Wellness Certification Programs,” Executive Wellness Coaching and Executive Wellness Leadership Programs, Lisa’s mission is to create an innovative and collaborative landscape for global workplace wellness that fosters employee-driven, results-oriented wellness solutions to benefit employers, employees, and communities at large.

References

[1] https://www.forbes.com/2009/04/16/ceo-network-management-leadership-stress.html?sh=bcb29047e544

[2] https://www.forbes.com/2009/09/30/executive-job-stress-leadership-ceonetwork-ccl.html?sh=306baca5fafb

[3] https://theprincesynergy.com/ceos-deal-with-stress/

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcGyVTAoXEU

[5] https://pragmaticthinking.com/blog/stress-management-for-ceos/

[6] Zucker, Rebecca. “How to Stop Thinking About Work at 3 a.m.” Harvard Business Review, Dec. 20. 2019.

[7] https://fortune.com/2016/08/30/12-business-leaders-on-how-they-handle-stress/

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] https://www.forbes.com/2009/04/16/ceo-network-management-leadership-stress_slide.html?sh=3d9c217e30bb

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