How Leaders Can Stop Chronic Stress From Burning Out their Teams

Here’s what I’ve heard from leaders recently about their stress. 

“I’ve been stressed all my career; I just didn’t realize it became chronic,” from a seasoned leader at a Fortune 500 company.

“I threw up every morning from a combination of stress, exhaustion, and an expectation of constant vigilance,” from a global manufacturing leader.

“I hid my pregnancy for months because I was afraid it would limit my advancement opportunities,” from a capable leader at a large consulting firm.

These stories are all around us as the day-to-day reactivity that pervades professional life takes its toll. We are sicker, less productive despite the hours we put in, anxious about the future, and still working even when facing depression over our current state.

But you don’t need research studies and statistics to tell you that. You’ve likely experienced it firsthand or observed it in others.

Even if you’re fortunate to work for a great employer with a great culture, you’re still held responsible for an ever-increasing workload. Your employer probably expects you to speak up if you’re overwhelmed, which you might not do for fear of losing face.

Beyond that, you’re responsible for managing your own efforts, figuring out how to sustainably work and reduce chronic stress. Few companies offer a roadmap to sustainable performance, nor do they focus on equipping their team members to make necessary shifts and improve their overall wellbeing.

What Happens to Your Body When Stress is Chronic?

Not all stress is bad, but chronic stress is toxic. Chronic stress causes your body to release hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) that suppress and cause major wear-and-tear on bodily systems.

Chronic stress puts you in constant fight-or-flight mode and can:

  • Break down relationships
  • Impair judgement
  • Reduce concentration and decision-making ability
  • Lead to physical and mental illness, including heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, depression, and more

For some, experiencing these symptoms is a call to action and meaningful change. For others, these symptoms can lead to overwhelming distress, a feeling of not being able to meet life’s demands, burnout, and an inability to function effectively under the pressures of life.

Good leaders don’t want to put their team members in this position. They want to give them the resources needed to sustain their wellbeing. What goes wrong?

How Organizations Fail to Recognize Burnout…and How They Can Fix It

Organizations fall short in their wellbeing efforts because they misunderstand stress and because they invest in wellness platforms without simultaneously investing in the infrastructure that will support a true wellness culture.

I’ve been in this position myself. As a senior leader for a global organization, I was largely unaware of the energy needs of my employees because I was rarely in an energized state that enabled me to be present, aware, attentive, and empathetic.

When we have little energy, there is inherently little energy to give others.

We may attend the wellbeing talks and forward the wellness emails. However, these actions carry little weight when our team members don’t see the advice being lived out, when we as leaders offer no inspiration and no clear reason why reducing stress and improving wellness is important.

How Can We Change That? Eustress as a Remedy to Distress

Eustress, or motivational and beneficial stress, can be the remedy for distress. Focusing on eustress doesn’t mean ignoring the fact that distress exists.

When you take an avoidant approach, problems and stressors grow until they feel insurmountable. By confronting a challenge head-on, you have the potential to convert negative stress into eustress (positive stress), shifting your stress from a fire that burns you down and transforming it into a fire that fuels you from within.

As a leader, convert negative stress to eustress by acknowledging and exploring your team’s issues. Stress often comes from the mental load team members are carrying because they don’t see a way around issues like:

  • Having too much work on their plate and not having a mechanism to reduce or share their workload
  • Feeling overwhelmed by meetings and other constant demands on their work hours
  • Lacking separation between work time and personal time
  • Missing the connection between what the company says they value (wellness, work-life balance, etc.) and what they actually value (managing projects without complaint regardless of the cost)
  • The high achiever ‘all or nothing’ approach to wellbeing rather than building a sustainable system that honors real life challenges

A real team discussion that leads to real outcomes can be far more motivating than sending team members to a wellness website or passing out a wellbeing handout.

And it pays off for organizations as well. Companies where leaders participate in wellbeing activities are 4x more likely to be recognized as a great place to work and 10x more likely to delight customers.

Inspiring Energy Creates a Path Forward from Distress and Burnout

Working and leading in today’s workplace is exhausting.

We need a new standard, one that isn’t just about flexibility or time off but that also focuses on understanding stress and its relationship to rest and sustainability.

Stress is not the enemy. It only negatively impacts us when we don’t give ourselves time to recover.

We need to create a life, a pace, and a work culture we don’t daydream about getting away from, one that’s not breaking down our bodies in exchange for the hours we put in. We need a workplace that’s inspired and driven by energy and committed to developing personal sustainability.

To create an energy-inspired workforce takes commitment. It takes listening, understanding needs, and providing the resources for a true wellbeing culture, where both people and the organization thrive.

By reframing, addressing, and channeling stress appropriately, we can tap into the best in ourselves and our teams. We can start by launching conversations and sharing programming that frames stress and the toll it takes on our team properly, and that shows the difference that can occur when we’re managing stress, curating positive stress, regenerating energy, and focusing on true wellbeing.

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