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The Way I See It… Escape the Stress Trap



Coach Graham Alexander reveals the secrets to achieving a more palatable work/life balance highlighting two examples of senior executives who managed to escape the stress trap.

There is no escaping stress in the workplace. In the UK, we are now working longer hours than ever before, juggling work commitments, families, friends and fitness – the list goes on.

At a senior level, being the figurehead of an organisation brings even greater pressure with the workforce, board and shareholders expecting leadership, support and most importantly results.

Managing stress is a skill that many of us fail to master, but in my experience, with good organisation, planning and prioritisation, a happy and balanced work life is achievable.

On the whole, people who work in business live by the ethos that the more hours worked the better the results. Unlike athletes who are attentive to levels of stress on both a mental and physical level, those in corporate life often believe they’re super-human, packing as much as possible into one day.

This is an uncomfortable position and is likely to induce feelings of stress relating to a lack of control. This isn’t to say that we aren’t capable of coping with a multitude of challenges - it’s more about focusing on personal organisation.

Fundamentally, effective scheduling is crucial to successful time management and being able to cope with day to day challenges. Prioritising meetings, emails and telephone calls, as well as utilising support networks (PA/secretary/colleagues) are all key to alleviating stress.

I often describe this practice as ‘modern day yoga’; a way of ensuring a still mind amidst the hurly burly of work life.

I recently coached someone who was appointed CEO of a large US furniture manufacturer. This new appointment led to our coaching sessions focusing on how he could be most effective in this role.

We’d had two sessions, when I began to notice he was working longer and longer hours, was looking more stressed, and wasn’t enjoying his position.

Previously he had been positive and effective so I noticed a real change, but during our sessions he failed to mention the long hours and the stress. I suspected that might be an issue and had checked with his personal assistant. (I often get permission to speak to others in the organisation from the person I’m coaching). She said, “His schedule is completely insane.”

At a certain point we were talking about something unrelated to the frantic pace he was keeping. “Stop,” I said, “With respect, I don’t want to continue this conversation. I want you to tell me honestly: How you are feeling?”

That simple question stopped him cold. He thought about it for a few moments and then replied, “I haven’t admitted this to anyone else, because I am fearful it would have a demotivational affect on people, but I will answer you honestly. I’ve been in this business 30 years.

"I thought I knew everything about it and that I’d be able to succeed in this role. That’s why I took it on. But I want to tell you that it’s 10 times harder than I could ever have imagined. I’m not at all sure I can succeed.”

He was very emotional. Like so many leaders, the burden of portraying to everybody else that he was on top of everything and confident only added to his stress.

Once he finally revealed the heart of the matter, he was relieved. More importantly, we could get into a much more useful conversation and dig into the different aspects of what was so hard. “Let’s bring your top team in and engage in a much more authentic conversation about the business and about where you are struggling,” I suggested.

He called a meeting and told his team, “I need your support and help.” He laid out the thorniest issues he was facing and got a lot of great feedback. That was a significant moment that led to a much more effective year than he would otherwise have had.

In time, the business began to turn around and that led to an orderly transition a year later when he decided to leave. His honesty gave him the freedom to make that choice on good terms. He is now in the business of helping other leaders as an executive coach.

Moving on from this, another tactic to employ is the ability to say ‘no’, which effectively means differentiating the urgent from the important.

Performing successfully at the highest level of British industry involves a ruthless determination to maintain focus. I often encourage my clients to prioritise the three most important tasks of the day, anything else they complete is then a bonus.

More often than not, businessmen and women are unrealistic about what is possible to complete within a certain time frame. People should listen to their own body rhythms and manage their workload accordingly.

Company culture often dictates that more is better, creating a sweatshop environment where employees are scared to leave work at a reasonable time. In reality, if the boss doesn’t feel comfortable leaving at 5pm on a Friday afternoon, the workforce definitely won’t.

Senior management should in fact be sending out the right messages to their colleagues, leading by example. They should encourage a hard working culture, but one that encourages effective time management and an acceptable work-life balance.

There are certainly myths within business that many executives and managers subscribe to, myths that heighten feelings of stress on a daily basis. Senior management often assume that by working to the end of the next week or month, or to the end of the next project that somehow things will get better, the workload will lessen and they will have more time to concentrate on other areas.

This is in fact not the case, even if we manage to complete our own to do lists, it’s human nature to generate additional work.

Another business myth is that companies should continually add things to their strategy/business plan and this will somehow make things better. However, organisations would be better off following the principle that ‘less is more’.

Companies should be trading hours worked for productivity, there is simply no point slogging through a seventy-hour week if the quality of work is below par.

Stress is often caused by a feeling of constantly drowning, by prioritising and focusing, people will undoubtedly perform at a higher level.

I was invited to coach a female executive of a large IT company, who was having trouble fitting in and seemed quite stressed. Despite working round the clock she never felt on top of the job, which consequently impacted on her performance.

What compounded the situation was the fact that the business was in trouble and her role, which was to communicate both internally and externally to the City, was proving a daunting task.

We started our work by disaggregating her role into its component parts and estimating approximately how much time each part should take. This activity enabled Emily to see that she was attempting to achieve more work than she had hours in the week.

It gave her a graphic picture of what she already knew, that she was attempting to climb an impossible mountain.

Armed with this clarity, I suggested that we look at her tasks from three perspectives: stop, delegate or do them more economically.

The goal was to help Emily return to her absolute ‘must-do’s’. Although this helped, it soon became apparent that her role was too big, thus we used a series of ‘out of the box’ questions to explore the issue, including, ‘If you had an unlimited budget what would you do?’, ‘What would others do in this situation?’ and ‘If you were braver what would you do?’

The two front-runners emerged as to work four days a week at the office and the fifth from home, allowing her to have essential think time, and to recruit an effective number two.

The trouble was she felt they were both impossible. There had been a head count freeze and she had not yet established sufficient credibility in the eyes of the CEO to ask to work from home. We decided too that she would have to hold off on working from home until she was on top of the job, but that she would flag it up with the CEO as an option for the future.

I’m happy to report that Emily did get approval for her extra support, which set her on the path to getting her top job. She also defined a motto for herself, which stated, ‘play my role as if my life depends on it, always remembering it doesn’t’ – a motto I would encourage everyone to follow.

Graham Alexander's new book "SuperCoaching" co-authored with Ben
Renshaw, is available

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