According to a report by Headspace in 2021, “work stress has become one of the top 3 concerns in 2021 for all people.” Although the stress caused by COVID-19 has been steadily decreasing, in general, people are still highly stressed about their “work-life balance” and careers (Headspace, 2021). How can CEOs and executives manage this stress? How should executive coaches guide their clients toward stress management strategies? Continue reading to find out.
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“Stress and worry, they solve nothing. What they do is block creativity…” - Susan L. Taylor
Why stress management matters
The effects of stress have been thoroughly studied by psychologists and physiologists alike. While stress can be beneficial for task completion, undue, unrelenting, and extreme stress can be harmful to the mind, body, and relationships of an individual. All of these negative effects influence the stressed individual’s career, home-life, and wellbeing as a whole.
Effects of stress on the mind
Researchers state that “there is evidence that stressful life events are causal for the onset of depression” and “anxiety disorders” (Schneiderman et al., 2005). Periods of extreme stress have also been linked to “less activity in the parts of their brain that handle higher-order tasks” such as complex thought and information processing (Harvard Health, 2021). The Mayo Clinic has also outlined some of the common effects of stress. These effects include: restlessness, lack of motivation or focus, feeling overwhelmed, irritability or anger, and sadness or depression (Mayo, 2021).
Effects of stress on the body
Research has also shown that high levels of stress are often associated with “increases in smoking, substance use, accidents, sleep problems, and eating disorders” (Schneiderman et al., 2005). Instead of confronting and resolving sources of stress when they arise, many individuals choose various coping strategies. These strategies can be harmful to the body if used extensively.
Furthermore, stress in and of itself can also cause harm to the body. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) states that “stress… may cause sleeping problems.” These sleeping problems have compounding ramifications on an individual’s health. If a chronic sleeping disorder is developed over time, individuals are at a higher “risk for heart disease, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and obesity.”
The American Psychological Association has also stated that “constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels”, effect “digestion and what nutrients the intestines absorb” and “make pain, bloating, nausea and other stomach discomfort felt more easily” (APA, 2018). These effects are only a handful of the varying negative effects of stress on the body.
Effects of stress on relationships
Not only does stress affect the body and mind, but it also affects the relationships of those experiencing stress. As stated previously, the effects that stress can have on the mind such as “irritability or anger” can negatively affect relationships (Mayo, 2021). Researchers state that in personal relationships such as marital or other romantic relationships, “stress can lead to negative interactions between partners and ultimately decrease relationship functioning” (Lau et al., 2018).
Amie Gordon Ph.D. states that “stress also brings out people’s worst traits” and can have negative effects on the relationships an individual has with others. “Stress also makes people more irritable and hostile, which increases the likelihood of fighting. When fighting, stress may make people less able to listen or show interest and empathy” (Gordon, 2017). The negative effects that stress has on both the body and mind, spill over into the relationships of a stressed individual’s life.
“With more and more stress from work, at times I really do hope to have someone I can lean upon.” - Song Hye-kyo
How executive coaches can help
In a 2018 study, 51.3% of surveyed executive coaches reported having high levels of stress. In a 2020 study that related to the amount of stress C-suite executives have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, 53% have “have struggled with mental health issues in the workplace” which are often associated with stress (Savanta, 2020).
This increase in stress levels is paramount for executive coaches to understand. If an executive coach has 10 clients, they can expect that 5 of these C-suite leaders will be experiencing high levels of stress and the negative effects of stress in their life.
Executive coaches who understand the potential effects of stress can then proceed to help their clients identify where stress is influencing their daily life. By helping executive coaches identify the effects of stress, executive coaches can guide their clients to the appropriate resources to start resolving their stress. This increases their well-being by decreasing the negative effects of stress on their mind, body, and relationships.
“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” - Lou Holtz
Ways to manage stress
It is important to note that executive coaches do not offer advice on psychological or medical issues and that referrals to qualified professionals should be made when necessary. However, in between referrals there are some practical ways to manage the stress that have been recommended by health professionals.
According to the Mayo Clinic, one of the ways individuals can manage stress and combat its negative effects is by “getting regular physical activity” (2021). This physical activity can be as simple as a walk or intensive like a regimented workout. The North Dakota State University states that “walking promotes the release of brain chemicals called endorphins that stimulate relaxation and improve our mood” and reduce stress (Garden-Robinson, 2011).
Believe it or not, the Mayo Clinic recommends “keeping a sense of humor” to relieve the effects of stress. In a 2016 research article, laughter was found to “have serious positive physiological effects for those who engage in it on a regular basis” (Louie et al., 2016). Having moments of humor throughout the day and noticing the funny moments throughout life, have been linked to reduced stress thus decreasing the negative effects that stress has on individuals.
Community is vital for stress reduction. The Mayo clinical states that “spending time with family and friends” can help individuals manage stress (2021). In a study of the effects of hospital workers’ friendships on job stress, it was found that nurses who had “long-term friendships” and “strong connections reported lower levels of stress” (Shin & Lee, 2016). Having friends both in the workplace and outside the workplace can help executives and CEOs alike better manage their stress.
“Writing down your thoughts and feelings can be a good release for otherwise pent-up emotions” (Mayo, 2021). For individuals who are stressed by multiple things or events, it can be helpful to write down these stressors along with the thoughts associated with them. Research shows that when medical students who experience more stress than the average population, participated in “visual journaling” there was a general reduction in felt stress and anxiety (Mercer et al., 2010).
By practicing mindfulness, individuals can become more aware of what is causing them stress, and start the process of resolving their stress. Clinical mindfulness-based stress reduction interventions have been shown to reduce stress in medical professionals (Shapiro et al., 2005). Mindfulness also has many other benefits as discussed in Ozzie Gontang’s article, “Mindfulness and the Mindful Coach.”
Questions that analyze stress
Some questions that executive coaches can use to gain insight to the levels of stress in their clients include the following:
On an average day, how stressed are you on a scale of 1 to 10?
How well are you sleeping?
How often do you spend time with friends?
Do you feel like stress is reducing your quality of life?
What steps do you think you should take today to reduce stress?
Remember that executive coaches must recognize that there are times when referrals need to be made to mental health and physical health professionals. For more information on when to refer clients, tune in to episode 1027 of the Arete Coach podcast.
Stress has many negative effects on executives and CEOs today. Under high-stress situations, the body, mind, and relationships that surround an individual are all affected. Since over half of C-Suite level business leaders reported that they experience high levels of stress, it is important that executive coaches understand how stress is affecting their CEOs and executives (Savanta, 2020). By understanding how to relieve stress, executive coaches can inform their clients about ways to relieve stress which can increase their overall wellbeing.
“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.” - Fred Rogers
ADAA. (n.d.). Sleep Disorders. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/sleep-disorders
APA. (2018, November 1). Stress effects on the body. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body
Ganesh, R., Mahapatra, S., Fuehrer, D. L., Folkert, L. J., Jack, W. A., Jenkins, S. M., . . . Sood, A. (2018). The Stressed Executive: Sources and Predictors of Stress Among Participants in an Executive Health Program. Global Advances in Health and Medicine, 7. doi:10.1177/2164956118806150
Garden-Robinson, J. (2011, August 8). Walking Can Help Relieve Stress. Retrieved from https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/news/newsreleases/2011/aug-8-2011/walking-can-help-relieve-stress/
Gordon, A. (2017, September 29). Is Stress Killing Your Relationship? Why You're Not Alone. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/between-you-and-me/201709/is-stress-killing-your-relationship-why-youre-not-alone
Harvard Health. (2021, February 15). Protect your brain from stress. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/protect-your-brain-from-stress
Lau, K. K., Randall, A. K., Duran, N. D., & Tao, C. (2019). Examining the Effects of Couples’ Real-Time Stress and Coping Processes on Interaction Quality: Language Use as a Mediator. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02598
Louie, D., Brook, K., & Frates, E. (2016). The Laughter Prescription. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 10(4), 262-267. doi:10.1177/1559827614550279
Mayo Clinic. (2021, March 24). How stress affects your body and behavior. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987
Mercer, A., Warson, E., & Zhao, J. (2010). Visual journaling: An intervention to influence stress, anxiety and affect levels in medical students. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 37(2), 143-148. doi:10.1016/j.aip.2009.12.003
Savanta. (2020). Global Study: C-Suite Execs Experienced More Mental Health Challenges Than Their Employees in Wake of Global Pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.oracle.com/emea/news/announcement/c-suite-execs-experienced-mental-health-challenges-2021-02-03.html
Schneiderman, N., & Ironson, G. (2005). STRESS AND HEALTH: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants. Annual Reviews Clinical Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2568977/
Shapiro, S. L., Astin, J. A., Bishop, S. R., & Cordova, M. (2005). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Health Care Professionals: Results From a Randomized Trial. International Journal of Stress Management, 12(2), 164-176. doi:10.1037/1072-5245.12.2.164
Shin, S. Y., & Lee, S. G. (2016). Effects of Hospital Workers’ Friendship Networks on Job Stress. Plos One, 11(2). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0149428
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