By SANDY CLARKE
Here’s the thing about leadership and stress: we’ve become so caught up in the notion that ‘the grind’ and ‘the hustle’ are what make or break leaders that we’ve lost sight of the consequences.
For many, it’s seen as a rite of passage. The more you can work yourself into the ground, the greater the leader you are.
Not only is such an attitude plain stupid, it’s also dangerous.
For example, insufficient sleep can increase the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart failure, and strokes. If your diet is poor, because you ‘don’t have time to eat’, it can affect your immune system, mental health, and your ability to function at your best.
Read this: Sleep Your Way to Better Leadership
What about exercise? If you’re not physically active, you’ll become sluggish and tired, and your muscles will weaken, which can have several implications for your overall health.
Aside from the duty of anyone in a leadership position to lead by example, work-related stress is a growing problem, particularly in this part of the world, and especially among leaders. Our health is our number one asset, and it should be our number one priority rather than something we’ll ‘get around to’ when we have the time.
As the saying goes, health is our first wealth: without it, we struggle to do much. If we take it for granted, there will come a time when we find ourselves with problems that become increasingly difficult to overcome. And all because we were foolish enough to neglect the greatest gift we possess.
So, how can we take better care of ourselves, especially when we’re pressed for time? Here are five tips that can help even the busiest of leaders to become fighting fit and set an important example for others to follow:
1. Stay active
Stress is most dangerous when it’s compounded; that is, when we have lots of small stressors building up and we don’t do anything about it. Think of a pressure cooker without a valve: as the pressure mounts, sooner or later it’s going to reach breaking point.
In leadership, it can feel like there are 100 different things to juggle each day, which is why it’s even more important for leaders to release stress on a daily basis. If you’re tight on time, a five-minute pause each hour can make all the difference, whether it’s to do some stretching in the office, or taking a walk around the block. As a leader, your health should be your top priority. Don’t take your well-being for granted – make time for it.
2. Learn about something that fascinates you
I knew a business owner who would devote time each weekend to learning about something that intrigued him. This could be anything from an online course on the origins of the universe, to taking up a creative writing course or learning Tai Chi.
This may interest you: How I Overcame the “Pain” of Learning
We often think of learning as a chore – accompanied by words such as ‘upskilling’ – but learning is what we make it. By taking time to find out about something that interests you, you’ll rediscover the joy of learning, and that joy will spill over to others areas of growth. Think of something that interests you – something that you’d like to know more about – and make that commitment to yourself to spend an hour or two each week to reignite the joy of learning.
3. Keep a daily gratitude list
As a self-confessed grouch (never let it be said that I lack self-awareness!), I know how easy it is to fixate on what can be improved and what can be done better. Especially as a leader, it’s tempting to focus on KPIs (key performance indicators) and outcomes that aren’t being met. While it’s important to maintain (and, dare I say, improve) standards, too much focusing on problems can lead us to forgetting all the good things going on around us.
To help with this, try keeping a daily gratitude list.
It’s easy: all you have to do is, at the end of each day, write down (by hand) three things you’re grateful for that happened today and why you’re grateful for it.
Studies into this suggest that, if done consistently on a daily basis, it reduces symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.
Give it a try. For added measure, keep all your entries in a box or a jar. At the end of the month, you’ll be able to see just how many blessings you have to be thankful for.
4. Spend regular time with family and friends
And not in a tick-box, to-do list kind of way. Set some time aside to spend lunchtimes or evenings with those who matter to you, and talk about something other than work. I recall (during one training) speaking to a clinical psychologist who worked non-stop. He’s also a lecturer and, when I suggested he spend more time with others, he replied, “Sure, that sounds great…where do I find the time?” I said to him, “Block lunchtimes in your Google Calendar, and let people know that, after a certain time in the evening, you won’t be attending to work-related matters.”
Ultimately, it’s the people closest to you that will support you no matter what, and spending regular time with them will remind you that there really is more to life than work.
I know, I know, it seems like every article on well-being implores us to meditate – but there’s good reason for that. The most stressed out people are senior managers, leaders and entrepreneurs. Not only are you running around doing countless things at once, you’re constantly in demand, having to deal with people’s issues, and at the same time comparing yourself to Elon Musk: if he can work 30-hour days, then you must be a slacker!
You may be interested in: Meditation, Mindfulness and Success
Alas, you’re like anyone else – a flawed human being who tries your best, and occasionally feels burned out and fatigued. Imagine how it would feel if you could feel calmer, more focused, energised, and less stressed when under pressure? Just 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation per day can help bring about these benefits – such a huge return for a small investment in yourself. And the best part is, not only is it scientifically proven to reduce stress and increase focus, it’s free!
Sandy is a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. He has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.