"If you're chronically stressed at work, it's time to stop buying into the myth that leaders and managers must be selfless martyrs."
Feeling stressed by your management responsibilities? If so, you're not alone. In our latest norms, we found that just 67% of leaders and managers think the level of stress they experience at work is manageable; the other third was unsure or overwhelmed. A similar percentage said they struggle to maintain work-life balance. Just half of leaders and managers feel they have enough time to do a quality job, and only 48% feel they can detach from work. These results suggest that anywhere from a third to a half of leaders and managers are struggling to cope with the challenges of their job.
When confronted with statistics like these, some just shrug and sigh: "Stress is part of the job, isn't it?" Based on a growing body of research, that's a dangerously defeatist perspective. Aside from the health risks associated with stress, there are a number of dysfunctional workplace dynamics that can emerge when leaders feel rundown, exhausted or emotionally drained.
Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., for example, has found that negative emotions can trap people in a flight, fight or freeze mindset that limits their ability to think creatively and develop innovative solutions. Janne Skakon and colleagues1 have found that the way leaders cope with their stress trickles down, impacting their employees' own work experience and stress levels. And at Mercer|Sirota, we've found that overwhelmed managers are significantly less likely to recognize and praise their direct reports.
If you're chronically stressed at work, it's time to stop buying into the myth that leaders and managers must be selfless martyrs. You're putting your own health and well-being, along with your team's effectiveness and engagement, at risk. Instead of working yourself to exhaustion, start developing a self-care strategy to manage the demands of your job. Here are four steps to consider:
1. Recognize the Warning Signs
Burnout — a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion often accompanied by self-doubt and cynicism — is a serious issue. Researchers have found prolonged periods of burnout can lead to a number of physical and mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, heart disease, high cholesterol, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
Burnout can manifest itself in a number of ways, including increased irritability, decreased motivation, changes in eating or sleeping habits, or unexplainable aches and pains.
2. Rest and Recover
If you find you are experiencing burnout, you need to take immediate steps to get help. Start by telling someone what you are experiencing. Tell your boss, an HR business partner or a colleague. If you don't feel comfortable telling someone at work, then (a) realize you may be working in a toxic organization2 that is not healthy for you and (b) be sure to tell your family, friends or your doctor. If you remain silent, your exhaustion could lead to isolation and compound your problems.
After you have shared your concerns, start finding ways to detach from work. Stop checking email the moment you wake up. Skip unnecessary meetings. Lighten your load. Take a mental health day. If you can reduce your hours or take a vacation, do so. Find ways to rest and reset so you can recover.
3. Reflect and Reorient
After you've gained some distance from your experience, it's time to start identifying the factors that led to your burnout. Start by reflecting on the timeline of events. When did your stress levels first start to rise? What was going on at work? Outside of work? Have you had this experience before, or is this the first time you've experienced burnout?
Next, reflect on the nature of your stress. As you've probably heard, stress is not always bad. Researchers have found that challenge stress — the stress associated with achieving an important goal — is positively related to job satisfaction. Hindrance stress — the stress associated with barriers that prevent us from getting work done — is negatively related with job satisfaction. If you've had a burnout experience, you've probably been dealing with a lot of hindrance stress. With that in mind, think about the way work gets done in your organization. Some experts argue that burnout is the result of working in a dysfunctional organization.
Finally, consider your own personality, values and attitudes toward work, your organization and your job. Researchers have found that people with certain personality traits are more prone to burnout.3 Through these reflections, your goal is to learn from your experience and gain insights that will prevent future episodes of burnout.
4. Rebuild a More Resilient You
If you have gone through burnout, the good news is this: you can use this experience to become a stronger, wiser and more resilient person. But that will require intentional effort on your part and a commitment to practicing self-care.
As you design your own self-care plan, realize that multiple pathways exist. Start by rethinking your approach to your job; you will probably need to change some of your workday habits. Your physical health is critical: researchers have found that leaders and managers are more effective when they are eating right, sleeping well and getting exercise.
Your mental perspective is also important: Stanford psychologist Alia Crum has argued that stress can be good for leaders if they know how to manage it. Be sure to consider your emotional response to the vicissitudes of work and life: research suggests that psychological flexibility and emotional agility can make you a more effective leader.4
And as you build your self-care plan, be sure to take a holistic approach, considering all aspects of who you are and what's important to you: research shows that your spiritual life — those aspects of your life that provide a sense of meaning, purpose and coherence — can help increase your resilience.
As you consider these four steps, remember this: if you're not taking care of yourself, you're not going to be able to take care of your team — at least not for the long haul. At some point, your patience, your health, your energy, or your effectiveness is going to give. Without some type of self-care strategy, you're doing yourself — and the people who depend on you — a disservice.
1. Skakon, Janne; Nielsen, Karina; Borg, Vilhelm; Guzman, Jaime. "Are Leaders' Well-being, Behaviours and Style Associated with the Affective Well-being of Their Employees? A Systematic Review of Three Decades of Research." An International Journal of Work, Health & Organisations, Volume 24, Issue 2, 2010,https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02678373.2010.495262.
2. Appelbaum, Steven and Roy-Girard, David. "Toxins in the Workplace: Affect on Organizations and Employees." Corporate Governance International Journal of Business in Society, 2007,https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242349375_Toxins_in_the_workplace_Affect_on_organizations_and_employees.
3. Scott, Elizabeth. "Traits and Attitudes That Increase Burnout Risk." Very Well Mind, May 20, 2019,https://www.verywellmind.com/mental-burnout-personality-traits-3144514.
4. Kashdana, Todd B. and Rottenberg, Jonathan. "Psychological Flexibility as a Fundamental Aspect of Health." Elsevier, Volume 30, Issue 7, November 2010,https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272735810000413?via%3Dihub.