How to Identify—and Manage—Executive Stress

In today’s fast-paced society, stress is often the name of the game. It can often feel like a misplaced badge of honor in which more stress indicates more productivity. But the reality of stress in the working environment is often exactly the opposite: more stress leads to less productivity and fewer results. This is particularly true for what’s commonly known as executive stress.

Executive stress is the daily, grinding stress that individuals in high-ranking positions often experience for days and years on end. While executive stress is not the same as clinically diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, it can still have a significant and negative impact on the body. One of the most challenging issues of executive stress is that individuals in high-stress positions may not realize that they are actually experiencing changes in their personality, behavior, leadership, or productivity.

Executive stress, also known as executive burnout, tends to worsen over time, and small/slight changes evolve into much larger complications. For instance, a stressful situation in the workplace may initially cause frustration. With enough frustration and executive burnout, that frustration may turn into total apathy and ‘learned hopelessness,’ wherein a leader may stop caring all together what the outcome or result of the situation is because they feel unable to manage the situation and/or the stress that comes with it.

Small triggers, such as those typical ‘Sunday blues,’ or when you dread going back into the office on Monday and it significantly and consistently impacts your thoughts and decisions on Sunday, are red flags for eventual burnout. Similarly, coming home from working and immediately craving an alcoholic drink or other seemingly stress-reducing “solution.” Over time, those needs for an escape from work become emotionally and mentally fatiguing, and they have a real and measurable impact on a person’s quality of life.

It may be challenging for the individual herself to recognize executive stress in her life, but, luckily, there are several indicators that spouses, colleagues, and friends can be aware of concerning ongoing and exhausting stress. If a leader suddenly begins unhealthy or negative habits, such as overeating or under-eating, smoking, drinking, or gambling, this is often a sign of an inability to manage stress. Being numb to their impact at a company or in their position is another red flag. For instance, if a leader no longer cares about the life of the business, especially if he or she cared significantly in the past, or if they start to not care about issues they used to be passionate about, this can indicate poor coping mechanisms.

Similarly, listening to a leader can be very helpful in identifying levels of stress in his life. When he begins to comment that no one supports his idea or he doesn’t feel listened to, or that the people above or below him in the corporate ladder are consistently not on the same page, these are additional indicators of a larger issue at hand. When stressful days become a stressful week or month or ‘stressful life,’ when social events no longer make it onto the calendar or they no longer attend anything outside of work, or when communication lines are closing between the leader and his spouse, family, and friends, it’s time to recommend seeking additional help.

At UC Health’s Stress Center, managing executive stress is an increasingly common therapy provided. Trained therapists help executives identify and manage stress. Together, executives and the staff at the Stress Center can cultivate ideas for helping burned-out executives reinvigorate their lives, careers, and relationships to find energy and enrichment.

If you feel you or a loved one may be experiencing executive stress, contact the UC Health Stress Center at 513-558-5872.

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