Tips for Reducing Executive Stress

Time management and self-awareness can bring peace of body and mind.

1999 Volume 2 Issue 1

A Harvard Medical School study indicates that patients who cope poorly with stress are four times more likely to become physically ill than those with coping strategies that work for them.

Stress! It impacts the lives of over 65 million Americans. More than 5 billion doses of tranquilizers and sleeping pills are consumed daily in the United States, in attempts to reduce its effects. Thirty million Americans have been diagnosed with acute anxiety disorders such as panic, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorders. An additional 35 million Americans suffer mild to moderate symptoms.

Are these people who, “just can’t take it?” Probably not. According to research done by Juliet Schor, professor of economics at Harvard, the average American is working 163 hours each year more than he or she worked in 1970. That’s another full month! If you are a management professional, the numbers are even higher.

What Is Stress, Anyway?

According to Dr. Hans Selye who first used the term in this context, stress is the sum of all the non-specific effects of factors that can act upon the body. In other words, anything that affects the body in any way causes stress. These factors that cause stress are called stressors. Selye distinguishes external stressors from internal stressors. While there is not really a clear line between them, suffice it to say that external stressors are those that originate in our environment and include everything from the people we are surrounded by to the food we eat. Internal stressors are those things that we bring to the party as a result of our past. Depending on the circumstances, our beliefs, perceptions, and conditioning can all be examples of internal stressors. Stress reactions can be seen as the result of the interplay between these two kinds of stressors.

Stressors affect different individuals in different ways. According to Dr. Murray Mittleman of Boston’s Beth Israel Medical Center, one of the strongest stressors that managers face is working under a high-pressure deadline. But while one manager may respond to such a stressor by having heart problems, another may react to the same stressor by getting migraines or ulcers, while a third may have lower back pain.

Here is where the “non-specific” part of Selye’s definition of stress comes in. Any stressor has the effect of stimulating the body’s sympathetic nervous system that places all of the body’s major organs on alert, i.e., under stress. Unless this stress can be discharged in some way, a steady dose of stress-inducing hormones can cause illness and premature death. Selye called this cycle the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).

During the early years of the century, the great Harvard physiologist Walter B. Cannon was able to experimentally prove what everyone had long suspected: Humans, like other mammals, have a built-in response to perceived stressors. Cannon called it the Fight or Flight Response. In the presence of danger, or what is perceived as danger, the body immediately goes into survival mode. While in this mode, heart rate and blood pressure increase causing capillaries to dilate and forcing blood away from the extremities. The stomach contracts, causing vomiting in extreme cases, and respiration increases to force more oxygen into the bloodstream. These reactions prepare the body to either run or fight.

Mammals function through their form. In the case of the deer, horse, and other fleet-footed animal, even a cursory observation of their physiology reveals that their reaction to danger will be to run. Nature has endowed them with slim legs, big eyes and ears, and enormous lung capacity. If rushed by a mountain lion or a wolf, their survival strategy propels them into flight. On the other hand, the physique of the rhinoceros suggests it will fight rather than flee which, in fact, it does.

With few natural enemies, and limited eyesight, the rhino’s survival strategy is to charge at what it perceives as a threat. It cannot run far compared to other animals, but its short stubby legs and tank-like body allow it to attack with sufficient force to overturn fully loaded safari trucks. As far as we can tell, neither the running nor fighting response results from conscious thought processes.

Unless restrained in some way, animals will discharge their stress-induced hormone cocktail by running or fighting. But what happens when they are restrained or, in some way, prevented from acting in the manner that their physiology requires? Selye discovered that when rats are placed in situations of unrelieved stress, they develop such diseases as ulcers, heart disease, arthritis, and cancer. For these animals, this is what can happen if the General Adaptation Syndrome is allowed to run its course.

One of the things that appears to distinguish human beings from other creatures is that we are not so tightly tied to one particular fight or flight mechanism. Human physiology is suited for either fight or flight as a situation requires. Human legs are suitable for running, sprinting, or taking a stand. With wide shoulders and powerful arms, humans can fight in a variety of ways. Unlike most other creatures, we can choose to run or fight depending on the circumstances.

No doubt this ability to choose our responses was of great value when we were competing against nature for our survival. It is highly likely that our generalized response system contributed to our more complicated cerebral cortex and, hence, to our ability to evolve from Homo Erectus into Homo Sapiens. With that evolution, however, has come a complicated social system complete with technology, sanitation, and occupational specialization. For the most part, this has had the effect of separating most of us from nature and limiting the number of instances in which the fight or flight mechanism can go through its complete cycle of buildup and discharge. We still function through our physiology so we experience the same buildup of acute stress reactions our ancestors did. The difference is that we have fewer outlets to discharge this buildup, i.e. we have limited the number of opportunities in this society to either run or fight.

Selye and other stress researchers have found that human beings develop chronic stress symptoms in response to a buildup in undischarged stress. These symptoms include the same stress-related diseases that Selye observed in his experimental animals.

So, if the lives we have created for ourselves make it difficult, if not sometimes impossible, to follow our bodies’ dictates for running or fighting, perhaps one answer to a less stressful life is to learn to avoid as much stress as we can. Believe it or not, there actually are some effective ways to do this at work and in our personal lives as well.

Gallop Poll on Stress

(Taken from a cross-section of Americans)

How often do you experience stress in your daily life?

Always – 40%
Sometimes – 39%
Rarely – 17%
Never – 4%

Which of the following sometimes or frequently causes you stress?

Your job – 70%
Money problems – 63%
Family – 44%
Housework – 37%
Health problems – 35%
Childcare – 20%

Would you take a 20% income cut
if you or your partner could work fewer hours?

Yes – 33%
No – 67%

During stressful times, do you prefer to be alone,
be with family, or be with friends?

Alone – 48%
Family – 29%
Friends – 18%

Is the amount of stress in your life within your control?

Yes – 76%
No – 23%

Work-Related Solutions

Ben Franklin said, “Time is the stuff life is made of.” As true as that is, few of us actually organize our time in ways that effectively minimize stress. One reason for this is the way in which we perceive events around us. Often, we have learned to see ourselves in the center of a fire ring, battling flames in all directions, our extinguisher almost depleted. And while we cannot control all the events in our lives, many of the fires we are attempting to put out today are the result of previous decisions we have made about how we thought we could allocate our time in the future.

Learn to prioritize your time. For one week, keep a log of how you spend your time at work. Do it in ten-minute increments. Don’t attempt to change anything yet–just log in how you are currently spending it. After a week, analyze your log. You will be shocked and surprised at the amount of time you spend on items that are unimportant or could be done by others. Stephen Covey made the helpful distinction between those things that are important and those that are urgent. Avoid stress by giving yourself time to do those things that are important first. Then allocate time to make more informed decisions about the urgent matters. (Just staring out the window may be important, by the way.)

The ability to delegate tasks effectively is a critical part of time management. As Byron Lane writes in Managing People, “The ‘I am the only one who can do it right’ syndrome…puts unrelenting pressure on everyone and is a major cause of stress-induced illness.” Therefore, one of the most effective ways for executives to avoid stress is to delegate. Many managers believe that they delegate a lot. After all, don’t they hand off work to their subordinates? Yes, but for the most part, giving subordinates work to do is a very different process than delegation. Delegation requires that a manager give the responsibility for completing the whole task, or at least a significant portion, to somebody else. While most, if not all, of your employees can complete tasks under supervision, a far smaller number may be ready for the responsibility of delegation.

Because of this, you will need to delegate small tasks to those employees you judge to be capable of taking on more responsibility. Then, assign larger tasks to those who do well with the smaller amount of responsibility. Remember, your goal here is to reduce your level of stress by delegating a significant portion of your administrative tasks to those you have trained to assume them.

Another value accruing from making a time log is that it can give you an idea of some of the things you do every day that you may be quite unconscious of doing. Some of these may be adding to your stress. For example, is your time going to and from work a time of calmness and relaxation or do you use these minutes to pump up your anxiety? Many people feel they should use their time in traffic to make calls to clients or the office. Others listen to a news station the whole time. Instead, try listening to music or to a book on tape or CD. Use the time between home and work and work and home as a time to relax. But what about traffic? Your whole perspective on your day can shift positively if you leave fifteen minutes earlier than scheduled.

Are you making time during the day to relax and get refocused? If lunchtime can be that time for you, avoid eating lunch at your desk whenever possible. Even the most healthy foods can become valueless when ingested in a stressful environment or when associated with stressful activities.

Designate a specific time each day to answer e-mail and return telephone calls. If you don’t use a planner already, consider getting one and learning to use it. Hiram Smith, founder of the Franklin Institute, suggests blocking out a period of time every day where your secretary or assistant can make appointments for you. That way, you can control the rest of your time without being concerned about appointments you may have overlooked.

Another strategy to avoid executive stress is to delegate decisions regarding how work should be done to those closest to the work. An effective way to do this is to create work teams that meet to discuss how workflow and processes can be improved. As with delegation, employees need training to work well together in groups. After studying scores of teams and work groups, I have concluded that successful groups take responsibility for the work they do and focus upon the process (The way in which they relate to one another.) as much as they focus on the task to be done. Many organizations bring in outside facilitators to help in the training process. Just keep in mind that effective teams let employees help you avoid stress by taking the responsibility to help themselves.

Self-Awareness Critical in Stress Reduction

From the perspective of your life as a whole, the most effective way of avoiding stress is to become more self-aware. The more you are able to monitor your internal reactions to your environment, the easier it will be for you to identify the stressors in your life and take steps to reduce or eliminate them completely. Many have found that some form of meditation is a way to accomplish this. Take some of the time you found when you did your time log and use it for something really important.

There are many methods of meditation, but a simple one, adapted by Herbert Benson at Harvard University, is to simply close your eyes, relax, and repeat a word or phrase that you find relaxing. It can be something scriptural like, “The Lord is my shepherd,” or a word like “Calming.” Benson found that this simple exercise can have a measurable impact on stress-related symptoms such as heart rate and blood pressure. The effects of meditating for ten minutes, twice a day, are long-lasting and will increase your awareness of stressors around you – an important first step in learning to avoid them.

The word wa in Japanese signifies a condition of calm and tranquility where the mind and the body are one. It takes effort and time to reach such a condition and much thought is given in Japanese culture to the preservation of this balanced state. Things as far apart as gardening and judo, for example, have their roots in the cultivation and preservation of wa. The more you can learn to avoid chronic stress, the more often you will be able to find yourself in that calm, balanced, and clear state.

Scientists have long been aware of the effect that the mind can have on the body, but it has only been lately that there has been enough empirical evidence to thoroughly support it. The unconscious mind has no voice; it speaks to each of us through the language of the body. It is up to us to learn to understand this language and follow its promptings.

About the Author(s)

Richard C. Rierdan, PhD

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