To get through challenging times at work, Paul Hartzell, a sales executive in Singapore, leans back on his years as a professional baseball pitcher. In his twenties and early thirties playing in each of the season's 162 games meant the odds of losing were high. Now, 60, knowing how to deal with athletic setbacks has helped Hartzell deal with the stress of managing a sales team in a quickly changing environment in a more constructive way. "Every time you show up, you show up with a positive attitude - that's what 80 per cent of successful sales require," says Hartzell about what helps maintain his peak performance.

But for many executives it's not always as easy to put on a smile. While setbacks in the workplace are inevitable, dealing with stressful situations incorrectly can mean significant setbacks for the company. For executives, knowing how to deal with corporate stress is a complicated mix of understanding how to delegate, analysing the causes, seeking help to address any psychological issues and thinking more strategically, say workplace consultants and therapists. "Even anticipated change triggers stress," says Thomas Diamante, an industrial organisational psychologist and executive vice president at CCA Inc., a human capital management firm in New York. "The capacity to adapt to change is crucial to executive performance."

In the last decade, executive stress has become a buzzword and serious business for multinational corporations, who routinely set aside budgets for additional offerings that help leaders stay at the top of their game. In larger cities, private workplace consultants and therapists are charging upwards of $200 per hour to help executives tackle challenges they are facing at work. Part of the reason is that a leader who is feeling sluggish or burned out can harm the entire organisation by making hasty decisions and functioning with decreased cognitive capacity, says Howard Eisenberg, a psychiatrist and president of Syntrek Inc., a performance enhancement and change management firm in Ontario, Canada. And of course, life at home also suffers as a consequence of setbacks at work.

Stress actually makes executives less sensitive to the needs of their employees, which can impact the entire team because it decreases "emotional self-regulation", says Eisenberg. Executives dealing with their own challenges can have trouble understanding their employees' needs. There's a "deterioration in work relationships due to impatience, irritability and reduced capacity for rapport," says Eisenberg whose clients include Motorola, IBM and General Electric.

Leaders who feel pinched because of too many tasks also have a tendency to turn into micromanagers in order to rein back control, says Shawnice Meador, director of career management and leadership development at the University of North Carolina business school in Chapel Hill. When in crisis mode, some executives feel they can handle projects better than their underlings, but piling on more work can actually increase stress, she said. It's important to resist the urge for further control, because focusing on smaller tasks means "they run the risk of losing their strategic edge", says Meador.

Is executive stress a myth?

Not everyone believes that stressed-out executives are a problem. In fact, some critics say that it's the subordinates that experience higher levels of stress in the professional world. Most often stress is caused by a lack of authority and control, which most executives have, wrote Keith Payne, associate professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, in a 2013 article in Scientific American magazine. "They have much more control over how their lives are arranged than does the secretary who schedules their appointments or the janitor who cleans their office," Payne wrote. "In most cases they can say no to requests and they can decide when and how to deal with challenges."

Diamante says that executive stress shouldn't be treated differently from other types of stress. "Stress is everywhere," he says, and executives who feel stressed need to focus on how they deal with change internally rather than criticising the company. "Blaming external factors for being over-stressed and therefore ineffective is inexcusable," he said. "Remember that stress resides in one's head."

Simma Lieberman, an executive coach based in Berkeley, California, disagrees. Despite having autonomy over their own roles, many executives make the mistakes of internalising the stress from dealing with unhappy subordinates, she says. "While executives and senior leaders have more control of their
work, they manage people who feel like they have less control," she said. Overseeing employees to help better the organisation can be just as stressful, so it's important to invest time into helping employees grow into their roles while delegating more responsibility. "There will be less of a need to micromanage, and less anxiety about people doing their job and producing results," she adds.

Others point out that times of high stress can actually be a step in the right direction for the company. "Stress drives change, innovation, improvement - or it derails you," says Diamante, who adds that understanding how to deal with a high-pressure environment is key. Rather than turning fearless leaders into incapable employees, stress should be used as a way to harness ideas or come up with out-of-the-box solutions to meet new demands, he says. "Stress converted into productive energy enables rather than disables performance," he said.

Blaming the always 'on' culture

But others say it can be difficult to fight against the non-stop culture that's come with increased use of technology and an emphasis on short-term results. It's not just after-hours calls that have meant an increase in stress. Anything from too many meetings to unanswered emails can cause unnecessary anxiety. Workers spent about 28 per cent of their time each day on simply answering emails, according to a 2012 analysis by the McKinsey & Co. Global Institute. In many workplaces this kind of thinking also means cut-throat competition between those climbing the corporate ladder rather than a focus on teamwork. With so many interruptions, many executives can no longer carve out the necessary downtime to tackle long-term initiatives, says Meador.

Rather than remove sources of stress, it's important to learn how to navigate between them to find what needs to get done in order to improve a company, says Brent Bolling, Managing Director of Development Dimensions International in Toronto, Canada. "Today's executive is operating as both a working leader and strategic visionary," he says.

Changing the rhythm

While there's no one-step answer to executive stress, executive coaches suggest practising simple stress management techniques even during calmer times. "Exercise, meditation, even a movie needs to be in your schedule," says Lieberman, who works with companies on diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Eisenberg urges executives to work on more genuine communication such as in-person conversations when dealing with stressful situations. "Texting and emailing only provides 10 per cent of the information and rapport achievable with the modulation of body language in direct presence with others," he said.

In the workplace, some advocate delegation as a way to get more done while doing less, and a new emphasis on work-life balance has resulted in a slew of business books on the topic in the last two years. The Power of Doing Less by Ireland-based author Fergus O'Connell, Do Nothing by Northwestern University professor J. Keith Murnighan and Brief, a book on lean communicating by marketing executive Joseph McCormack, are bringing a less-is-more approach on what it takes to run a company.

For many of these, the key word to managing workplace stress is delegating and challenging subordinates to take on more responsibility, says Murnighan. "For leaders to back off is actually good for everybody," he says. As these smaller tasks fall away, it leaves more room for strategic thinking, which is the key role for most executives.

 

Alina Dizik

Alina Dizik is a freelance journalist and writes for, among others, the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, the Financial Times and Forbes magazine

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