Leading by example: How leaders can cope with and harness their own stress


When you are responsible for protecting the wellbeing of others, it can be easy to forget about your own mental health. Navigating through a multitude of challenges, today’s leaders need to prioritise self-care to avoid burnout while providing support to their teams. From practising intentional recovery to reframing perception, here are seven ways leaders can cope with stress in a demanding work environment.

Dedicating time for recovery

To effectively manage a company or team, leaders need to be able to handle the pressures that come with it. But pressure and stress are two different things. Prolonged high levels of pressure will trigger a stress response that’s why it is crucial to take proactive steps before it happens, says Vicky Smith, Senior Consultant at WorkingWell.

“In the rush of things, leaders often forget to grant themselves a break. But to sustain a high level of performance, you need to practise intentional recovery. By intentionally recovering your energy every 90-120 minutes, you can be at your optimum for most of the day and achieve personal sustainability that will help you cope with stress,” notes Smith.

Intentional recovery is crucial not only for leaders but for their teams too. “You should build it into your organisational culture and show people that taking regular breaks between tasks is an encouraged practice,” she concludes.

Investing in external support

Whilst leaders may be prepared for their technical role, often they are unprepared for the psychological and emotional intricacies associated with their position. This is why working with an independent professional coach and mentor can be invaluable when handling stressful situations, says David Roche, author of “Become a Successful First-Time CEO”.

When feeling stressed, leaders can struggle to see the best route forward. But David points out that an experienced coach/mentor not only helps the individual to find their own best route, but can also provide practical advice, leaving leaders empowered to take steps forward.

For Roche, engaging a professional coach and mentor is a relatively minor investment, but has major long-term commercial and personal payback. “Leaders need a safe sounding board and a wise head to help think things through and by implementing a coach/mentor into your routine, the positive results can be dramatic,” he explains.

Empathy as a foundation

Leaders seeking to mitigate the negative impact of stress in the workplace need to treat themselves and others with kindness and empathy. As Sue Musson, author of “Firecracker Leadership”, says, “Think of the aeroplane safety demonstration; you need to put your own mask on first before you can help others.”

Leaders should put on their own stress management mask first by checking resilience levels and boosting any areas that are flagging, focusing on eating well, moving well, thinking well and sleeping well. They can then assist others. Asking a simple, “Are you ok?” can be the key to unlocking conversations about stress and resilience, fostering a culture of care and understanding.

“Leading with empathy is so important in managing workplace stress, but avoid absorbing negative emotions without perspective and a solution focus. Leaders should keep their head (analytical), hands (technical) and heart (emotional intelligence) skills in balance,” argues Musson.

How helping others, helps you

When employees are overwhelmed by stress, it has a huge impact on a leader’s own wellbeing. Whilst it is essential leaders are aware of the stress levels of their teams, there should also be a focus on individual resilience and ownership so teams feel empowered to problem-solve where they can before escalating to the leaders, explains Jeremy Blain, author of “Unleash the Inner CEO”.

Blain highlights how this can be achieved through distributed leadership and building a more horizontal organisational structure. “By creating an organisational culture that prepares their team with the skills to step in, step out and step up, leaders can feel more confident their team is empowered to navigate workplace challenges independently,” says Blain.

“Of course, it is essential leaders are available to support their team through stressful situations, but by investing in building individual, team and organisational resilience too, leaders mitigate bigger problems further down the line,” argues Blain. 

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The power of delegation

The personal weight of responsibility and tough decision-making can be overwhelming for leaders. When steering the ship, the pressure of trying to spin many plates can cause intense levels of stress. Rather than try to manage the business single-handedly and be the go-to person for everything, Alexis Sikorsky, author of “Cashing Out”, advises leaders to lean into the skills of others and delegate to those most skilled in that area to help manage personal stress. 

In Alexis’ own career it took him fifteen years to realise that whilst he might be quite a good leader, he was actually not as skilled at managing. Rather than becoming stressed trying to plug that gap, he placed his focus on creating a vision and motivating other people to make a plan that will take the business there. 

“As the captain of the ship, it is essential you’re protecting your wellbeing. If you lack the skills you need, rather than dwelling on this as a weakness, instead go and find somebody who has them. You will save yourself stress in the long run and set everyone up for success,” says Alexis. 

Reframing perception of stress

In recent findings by The Workplace Health Report, 54% of people agree that the perfect amount of stress enables them to thrive. Adopting stress as a catalyst can serve as a powerful mindset tool for achieving success and also in the way managers lead others.

Dr Lisa Turner, Mindset and Resilience Expert and Founder of CETfreedom, advocates it can be useful; “If we are able to identify our physiological and emotional responses to stress and redirect that energy towards concentration, productivity and effectiveness, we can choose to view stress as a motivating factor enabling us to push towards peak performance.”

Lisa explains, “Just the right amount of stress is not only helpful but essential for accessing a flow state. This is a state where the individual is completely immersed in the task at hand, it feels joyful and triggers a sense of accomplishment and achievement. But to access deep flow we need the perfect skills-challenge balance. Too much stress and we can’t get into flow, too little and we will be bored. Finding your personal flow triggers is key to accessing flow.”

Connecting with your emotions

As the key person in an organisation that people turn to leaders can feel pressured to uphold certain expectations, thinking not showing emotions such as stress makes them appear more resilient or automatically take on additional work for themselves. However, as Blaire Palmer, author of Punks in Suits explains, “Leaders sometimes try to act like superhumans, believing that having the big job title means they are either more capable of dealing with stress, or that high levels of stress are the price they pay for holding such a senior position. In reality, neither of these things are true.” 

Palmer believes that good leaders should be willing to connect with their emotions, not just their ‘logical brain’, “Opening up about the emotions you are experiencing not only lifts a weight off your shoulders, but creates greater trust and understanding amongst your team. At a time where AI and technology are advancing, it is your emotional self-awareness and empathy as a leader that is your defining skill and talent.”

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