As much as the ability to deal with pressure is part of the job of a CEO, there remains a lack of maturity about how to identify and recognise stress among executives. Too often, stress is perceived as a sign of weakness and the ongoing stigma around it means that performance and decision making throughout organisations is being undermined.

Peter Cheese, Chairman of the Institute of Leadership & Management, says: “Addressing the issue of stress has got to be done from the very top of the organisation, as this is a cultural, behavioural shift. It is moving away from a culture that has often been quite macho to recognising that people at all levels do have different capacities... If you ‘overstress' them they're not productive and, if they're subject to prolonged stress, they will leave.”

It’s a case of understanding that processes need to be in place to help prevent breakdowns and burnout. Ivan Royle, Managing Director of Corporate Affairs at The Bank of New York Mellon, says: “Stress and anxiety are emotions that all of us experience in one form or another during our working lives. They are part of performing at a high level and being able to manage stress and anxiety in others and in oneself is an important part of the skill-set of an executive.”

For Jacqui Grey, Managing Director of Transition and an expert in stress management, it's important to see stress as an accepted and inevitable side-effect of leadership, but for appropriate measures to be taken to both recognise and tackle the symptoms: “In much the same way as military personnel are not expected to do tour after tour of duty without a proper break, it should be okay for someone to ask for a sabbatical.

"It should be part of how leaders get rewarded and businesses should implement short modules on their existing leadership programmes to explain what is going on when people experience stress and offer simple solutions for managing it.”

Tone at the top

Of course, the problem of stress in business extends beyond the boardroom, which is why it's vital that the executive and non-executive team set the right example for employees. Martin Balaam, CEO of IT company Jigsaw 24, says: “As a leader, it is important that the senior management team are not seen to be stressed as this will permeate down the organisation and make the situation worse, especially during times of change. Staff look to their leadership team for clarity, guidance and communication – no one expects you to get everything right every time but they do expect you to lead.”

Ian Ryder, Deputy Chief Executive at BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, explains: “A leader needs to demonstrate calmness and control but, critically, understanding. There’s nothing worse than a leader who doesn't seem to know what is going on and, if the organisation is stressed, the leader has to show he or she understands that without adding to it by seeming to be carefree.”

It’s a case of examining the expectations and demands set around performance and the hours people are working. Peter continues: “What’s very important is recognising that at the top level your behaviour sets an example. If a board member is working seven days a week and 14, 15 hours-a-day, what message is that sending to the rest of the organisation? It also indicates that a manager is putting the same sort of stress on their team.

“To build in the sort of behavioural shift and culture that you want, that better recognises the counter-productiveness of stress in an organisation, it's got to start from the top. It starts from the principle that there is an honest recognition that at the top of organisations people who are stressed need to do something about it.”

Let's talk

While it’s unrealistic to expect organisations to become outwardly touchy-feely environments, as ultimately targets need to be met, pushing people to the limit over extended periods will only make it harder to achieve results. According to Ian, the main causes of stress come from “uncertainty, mistrust and genuinely bad management”.

Martin says: “Rather than trying to spot stress, assume that it is there if you are going through change, which for most of us is a regular occurrence. Managers who don't recognise they are overloading staff, or ignoring their concerns and being more interested in self-promotion, are way too common and a great source of stress in organisations.”

This problem occurs in both large and small companies. Theresa Wallis, Non-executive Chairman of medical technology concern LiDCO and a seasoned non-executive director of a number of small-cap companies, says: “A HR manager who middle and senior managers can go and talk to confidentially can really work and helps to nip issues in the bud.”

On a personal level, Theresa notes that experience is invaluable when it comes to tackling stress. "In terms of stress simply because you’ve got a huge amount of work to do in a short amount of time, over the years you learn to stand back, make a list of all the things that are worrying you, then build a plan. Be sure to talk to your non-executive directors too, including the chairman."

Martin insists that it’s important not to be too proud when seeking advice from others. “Ask for help," he says. "If you have non-executive directors with a wealth of business experience, talk with them and get their input.”

Pressure in the workplace is unavoidable, but a more open and honest approach to stress and its causes should help to alleviate the sleepless nights, poor health, absenteeism, arguments and impulsive decisions that are simply bad for business.

Denial isn't an option.

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