Without question, executives and senior leaders today are having to make unimaginable choices and decisions as they deal with the current realities of this pandemic. 

In recognition of April’s Stress Awareness Month and the unprecedented challenges executives are experiencing, we are devoting this article to “executive” stress mastery.

According to Dr. James Petersen, founder of Stressmaster International, from past research, over 60% of executives have admitted to being stressed. That percentage has undoubtedly grown exponentially in the past month. 

Expectations for answers and direction, from the Board of Directors to managers and employees, has put unprecedented demands on executives today.

In my interview with Dr. Petersen (pre-pandemic), he shared that increased stress across all levels of the organization, was becoming a critical concern that requires our full attention.

No alt text provided for this image

“Stress, and the lack of ‘stress mastery’ programs for employees and executives, is the greatest source of unwellness in this country”. Dr. James Petersen

Even if executives (and employees in general) do not develop physical illness or signs of such — particularly in the short term — unaddressed and unmitigated stress over time can take a real toll on their health.

Dr. Petersen also emphasized that impaired leadership and judgement of stressed-out executives can have a significant impact on their performance and the organization’s bottom line.

But the problems don’t stop there…

Stress leads to a high rate of turnover among executives. In fact, the problem is so widespread that the World Health Organization has created a new diagnostic category known as Burn-out:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy.”[1]
No alt text provided for this image

Whether burnt-out executives quit their jobs, step down or are removed from their positions due to stress-related factors, this phenomenon is a costly one for organizations. 

According to Dr. Peterson, the loss of just a single executive could cost a company as much as $500,000. (And perhaps even more during this pandemic, when the departure of a strong executive leader would be catastrophic.)

By comparison, the cost of a stress mastery program, he emphasizes, is far cheaper—and a more effective solution.

Stress Management vs. Mastery: What’s the Difference?

Stress mastery is a term Dr. Peterson coined back in 1982. As he explained, “I wanted to communicate to people that not only should we manage stress, which means to keep stress under control and bring it down, but we need to prevent stress from re-occurring, or minimize the impact of stress on our bodies, our minds and our performance. That’s why I felt the term stress mastery was appropriate.”

Shortly after defining stress mastery, Dr. Petersen founded Stressmaster International (a strategic partner of our Executive Wellness Coaching Program). The first tool he developed was a Stress Mastery Questionnaire (SMQ) to help individuals become better aware of the levels of stress inherent in every area of their lives. For Dr. Petersen, awareness of stress is absolutely crucial; after all, he explained…

Unless you’re aware of your stress, you really can’t do much about it.”

This is most true when it comes to executives, he said. “In my experience working in companies and organizations at the highest level, I’ve found that we need to identify, and help them identify, the sources of their stress so that they can begin to better perform as executives and managers.”

Now, identifying sources of stress is very important, but what do we do once we understand where stress is coming from?

The first step in mastering stress, he suggests, is to change how one thinks about stressful topics or individuals.

No alt text provided for this image

For example, instead of perceiving a challenging employee as a poor performer who will never change; instead, try to identify and focus on their positive skills, aptitudes, and potential areas of growth.

Of course, re-framing negative thoughts can be extremely challenging: especially when you are already stressed out and working overtime to get things off your to-do list.

That is why Dr. Petersen’s next stress mastery strategy — restorative sleep—is so crucial. He suggests avoiding alcohol and limiting food for a few hours before bedtime. (No surprise, achieving quality sleep has been one of the greatest challenges experienced by executives and employees since physical distancing and sheltering-at-home came into effect.)

No alt text provided for this image

He acknowledges that many executives face mental challenges to good sleep.

A common sleep inhibitor for many senior leaders (and perhaps most employees) is ruminating and worrying into the early morning hours about all the things they need to get done the next day, or tasks they failed to accomplish that week. (And now, how they might effectively lead and support their organizations and employees through this pandemic.)

For reasons such as these, practicing mindfulness is another key imperative of stress mastery.

As he explained, many executives are, “Worried about the future, they’re worried about what’s going to happen tomorrow or maybe they’ve got a presentation to make and they’re not ready for it. They’re living in the future—it hasn’t even happened yet, but they’re already there. [That’s why] we’ve been talking about bringing oneself back to the moment… you need to stay focused on what you’re doing right now, and then change your thoughts.”

Stress mastery, in its simplest form, involves awareness, rest, mindfulness and changes in the way you think.

Stress mastery practices/tools are needed now more than ever to manage our way through this pandemic and the re-opening of workplaces.

Embracing and employing these stress mastery practices will help mitigate controllable stressors, AND support executives in optimizing both their well-being and productivity. It should also precipitate a positive trickle-down effect to employees.

While these practices may sound simple, we all know that mastering them is anything but. For this reason, the Workplace Wellness Centre of Excellence supports executive wellness and stress mastery through Executive Wellness Coachingvia it’s Certified Executive Wellness Professionals(i.e. independent wellness professionals).

Through laser coaching sessions, which includes tools such as Stressmaster International’s Stress Mastery Questionnaire and Guidebook, our certified coaches can be a great resource in helping executives and senior leaders master the unrelenting stressors of this pandemic now and in the months, possibly years to come.

If you (or someone you know) could benefit from the support of an Executive Wellness Coach, please reach out to us at info@workplacewellnesscoe.com and we will gladly connect you with one of our talented coaches from our Executive Wellness Leadership Program (Internship).

About the Author:

Lisa Kelly, President, Workplace Wellness Centre of Excellence (a division of KWC Inc.), has been cultivating healthy changes within workplaces and with personal clients for over 20 years. Through her “Workplace Wellness Leadership Certification Series” 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.


[1] World Health Organization, Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases