Executive Stress

6 April 2006

What's the best way to unwind from the corporate pressure cooker (and no, it's not with a good single malt)? Mark Stuart knows how to get you into shape.

For the modern executive, the pressures of the 21st century can be overwhelming. Stress-related sick days now cost UK businesses over £7m a week and working parents spend more time checking their emails than playing with their children. In an increasingly cash-rich but time-poor society, how can those at the top cope with the all-consuming pressure of the workplace?

When something seemingly cataclysmic happens, it is a natural human reaction to get frustrated and upset – and if you're the CEO, perhaps even throw a few chairs around the room. You can do this – you're the boss. But, while there might be an immediate and temporary alleviation of stress, getting angry doesn't solve the problem.

In fact it makes it worse. You become even more stressed because no one wants to help. All your energies are directed towards being stressed, instead of solving problems. But if you can learn techniques to become calmer, a pattern of stress can be turned into a virtuous circle. The key is to see it as a business tactic like any other.


Most leaders are naturally 'A-type' personalities – highly competitive people who require everything to be done instantly. Realising that the urge to succeed can be separated from having unfairly high expectations of yourself (and those around you) can help reduce the resulting stress.

A-type people feel they have to do everything themselves, or the job won't get done. This is why many leaders become control freaks, locked in their office like a James Bond villain planning the next scheme for global domination. Instead, try - just as an experiment – delegating more than you normally would. While not everything can be delegated, it will be more than you expect.

Your employees will seize on their new tasks with energy and enthusiasm. Meanwhile, you will feel more supported and face less of a mountain of work, and your stress levels will come down as a result. This behaviour can then self-perpetuate.

Some bosses become bullies when they are stressed, because they think frightened employees work harder. This appears to work, because in the short term, people jump when shouted at. But in the long run, it is a poor tactic, because your staff will work less efficiently. Instead, all their energies will go into resenting you.

Similarly, when still in the office at 8pm you may be working 'harder' than other people – but not more effectively. The brain can't work to full capacity over such a sustained period of time. Furthermore, it is well known that taxing your brain like this can lead to a gap between how important you perceive something to be and how important it actually is.


Recent evidence backs this up, suggesting that managers who are less prone to stress and more focused on personal development make better leaders.

In a survey of more than 100 executives in more than 20 countries, London Business School determined the key characteristics and attributes that potential executives need.

"Managers who are less prone to stress and more focused on personal development make better leaders."

Overwhelmingly, the research indicates that candidates need to be 'more thoughtful, more aware, more flexible, more adaptive managers'. In other words, it's more important for leaders to be people-focused than content-focused.

This is a reverse of the traditional belief that A-type personalities 'get things done'. Suddenly, an emphasis on de-stressing and developing 'softer' characteristics becomes paramount. Employees will more readily offer a clear perspective. They will help more, and create more value for the business. None of this will happen if you intimidate them.


The first way to reduce stress is to change your attitude. Derek Roger, leader of the Challenge of Change programme of stress management at the University of York, emphasises that very few situations are truly stressful. Rather, it is the way we react that makes them so. By channelling energy into staying calm, removing negative emotions and staying solution-focused, instead of reacting angrily, stress can be cut by three quarters or even virtually eliminated.

Second, exercise. Half an hour of aerobic exercise a day (a brisk walk at lunchtime does the trick) will give significant benefits to your cardiovascular health, mental agility, increase your HDL (good cholesterol), and lower your propensity to let a difficult situation become a stressful one.

The immediate response from a busy executive is, "I haven't got the time!" Well, make the time. Treat it like an appointment; if you have a two-mile walk along the perimeter booked in for 1pm, there's no reason not to stick to it like any other meeting. Don't regard it as a buffer appointment that can be dropped. It's important, for you and the company.

If you live within 15 miles or so of work, consider cycling. It might not be much slower than sitting in a car through rush-hour traffic. And if David Cameron, the newly-crowned leader of the UK's opposition Conservative Party, is any kind of example, it does wonders for your personal brand as well. If that's not an option, consider having a rowing machine in the corner of the office. It's a cliché, but why not? Don't put it on expenses, because that will cause office resentment; pay for it yourself and have it installed. An exercise bike, punchbag or just a comfortable mat to do press-ups on – whatever takes your fancy – should not be seen as executive pretension. It should be normal.

If you're the sporty type, do something you wouldn't normally do; jump out of an aeroplane for charity, or join the CEO Ironman Challenge Europe contest. Make de-stressing fun, in whatever way you see fit. Discipline yourself to enjoy yourself – often, a stressed executive finds it harder to relax than to continue working. Make yourself switch off.


Alcohol, while it appears to offer relaxation when you're stressed, ultimately makes things worse. All drink does is temporarily blot out the stress factors – but the problems are the same when you come back to them, and your fitness to deal with them will be reduced.

Drinking more than six units of alcohol a day if you're a woman, or more than eight if you're a man, doubles your risk of having a stroke. If this doesn't keep your drinking in check, at least buy a briefcase that's too narrow to keep a whisky bottle in!


"It's too easy to let your life slip away without enjoying yourself."

Insufficient exercise, drinking too much or becoming a control freak can lead to a downward spiral that makes the stress worse and the workload seem impossible. Mental agility declines, and the perception increases that the outside world doesn't want to help, or isn't up to the job. None of this is real; it's your reaction that's creating the problem.

But you have the power to choose whether to succumb to this executive trap. Will you reverse the trend and start a positive spiral of stress management, or let it all get on top of you?

It's too easy to let your life slip away without enjoying yourself. You work hard at your job, so work equally hard at ring-fencing and enriching your free time. A happy, healthy life is what you're here for. Being a great leader comes an important second.

A pattern of stress can be turned into a virtuous circle. The key is to see it as a business tactic like any other.
The CEO Ironman Challenge Europe - an annual event to find Europe's fittest CEO.
The Ironman challenge pits competitors on a gruelling course that includes a 122-mile bike ride, a two-and-a-half mile swim and a full-length 26-mile marathon.
Half an hour of aerobic exercise a day will give significant benefits to your cardiovascular health, mental agility.