A spot at the top isn’t the most comfortable seat

The often unpredictable recession, lingering credit crisis and ensuing financial burden makes sitting pretty, pretty near impossible for business leaders.

For many senior executives, stress is part of the job description.  Some of the most common stressors can be the dread of downsizing, constant and fast-paced workloads and feelings of isolation. Then there are  personal problems — separation and divorce, problems with children or aging parents and illness. And if not managed properly, there can be negative side effects both in and out of the office.

High stress levels affect work performance by damaging the “boss of the brain,” the prefrontal cortex. This portion of the brain, much like an organization’s leader, is responsible for judgment, planning, problem-solving, decision making, moral reasoning and big-picture analytical thinking. And it’s derailed by stress.

According to Amy Arnsten, professor of neurobiology at Yale University, leaders with chronic stress, “become more primitive.”

Primitive is not a great way to describe the leaders of most advanced industries. Still, a leader’s stress levels can quickly become toxic and move down the staff food-chain, creeping into the company’s health, instigating “second-hand stress.”

In this sense, workplace stress can take a considerable toll on a company’s productivity, even influencing profitability. A stressed-out workplace as a result of a stressed-out leader decreases productivity, creating the potential for careless mistakes and even on-the-job injuries and accidents.

I’ve seen this a lot at our Presidents of Enterprising Organizations (PEO) advisor meetings — but what’s interesting is how groups rally to the assistance of their peers. When a dozen excellent business minds join together, problems don’t necessarily go away—but better solutions are arrived it very rapidly. It’s an impressive demonstration of the dynamics of networking: there are resources offered, experts to help, experiences to share, which may suggest other solutions or directions. As one leader commented, “At first I thought I was alone with my personal problem. But I wasn’t—it may not have lessened the pain of divorce but a clearer path toward resolution revealed itself in no time.”

Forbes.com recently published the top ten tips for CEO stress management. Tips include:

  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle
  • Delegating responsibility
  • Finding outlets for stress release, including such unusual ones as”‘having a sense of humour,” and even meditating—“It’s not just for Buddhist monks,” writes Forbes. “Meditating for just a few minutes, especially in the morning, can help clear the mind.”

Of course, another release is connecting to a support system of like-minded people faced with similar challenges. A peer-advisory network decreases the feeling of social isolation, in turn aiding stress release. Communicating in a non-professional forum with others sympathetic to leadership stress can help preserve the daily balancing act for senior executives. And that’s a sigh of relief for professionals across the board.