How do you manage stress as a director?

As a director, the pressures and responsibilities of leadership can often feel overwhelming. Juggling strategic decision-making, financial oversight, and ensuring your organisation's compliance can take a significant toll on your mental and physical well-being.

However, letting stress spiral out of control is not only detrimental to your own health, but can also have serious consequences for your team and business as a whole.

A 2022 survey by the IoD found that 59% of company directors said their personal wellbeing had been negatively impacted by their work in the previous 12 months.

And the cost of work-related stress, depression and anxiety to the UK economy is substantial:

  • A 2020 report by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimated that work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to work-related ill health in 2019/20, with the total number of working days lost at 17.9 million.
  • The HSE report calculated the total number of working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2019/20 was 17.9 million days.
  • The Centre for Mental Health estimated the annual cost of mental health problems in the workplace in England alone to be between £42 billion and £45 billion, in reduced productivity, sickness absence and replacing employees.

The economic impact of stress and burnout among leaders and senior executives contributes significantly to these overall figures. With high-level roles carrying immense pressure and responsibility, the downstream effects on productivity, absenteeism and staff turnover can be substantial for businesses and the wider economy.

Addressing the mental health needs of leaders through effective stress management strategies is not only crucial for individual well-being, but also has the potential to deliver major economic benefits for the UK as a whole.

Responsibility and stress

Whether you are the founder/CEO or one of a board of directors, you will naturally hold a lot of responsibility on your shoulders.

You may well feel the responsibility of many hundreds of employees’ livelihoods or feel pressure from shareholders or other stakeholders to design the right strategy to deliver maximum business growth.

And if you are a parent, or life partner, add on the stress of providing for your loved ones, and being present with them and for them too, and the mix is a heady concoction.

Depending on your personality make up, you may be able to compartmentalise stress from different sources, separating work and family life, for example. But this only works for so long – if you keep putting responsibilities and worries in boxes to deal with another time, the lids of those boxes can start to pop off when you least expect them to.

If you are more emotive and values driven, you may well take on other people’s stress as well as your own responsibilities, putting other people in your emotional backpack and carrying that around with you too. However, like the child with the overstuffed school bag, the weight of that stress can slow you down, and even make you topple over.

Recognising the signs of stress

The first step to effective stress management is being able to identify when the pressure is mounting. Some key signs that you may be experiencing unhealthy levels of stress as a director include:

  • Persistent fatigue, despite adequate rest
  • Increased irritability or mood swings
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Frequent tension headaches or muscle aches
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Reluctance to delegate tasks or relinquish control.

If you’re noticing these symptoms creeping into your daily life, it’s time to take proactive steps to regain control of your well-being.

Strategies for stress relief

As a leader, it’s critical that you model healthy behaviours for your team. Here are some effective ways directors can combat stress while still delivering on their responsibilities:

  1. Delegate effectively. You don’t have to do everything yourself. Empower your team by entrusting them with appropriate responsibilities and providing the support they need to succeed. This also helps to develop your team, taking additional pressure off your shoulders in the longer term.
  2. Manage your time wisely. Create a schedule that allows you to focus on your most important tasks without feeling constantly rushed. Use productivity tools and techniques to maximise efficiency.
  3. Take 5 minutes out – I often advocate the ‘no-fag fag break’ with my clients – taking 5 minutes away from your desk every hour or so, ideally in the fresh air, and without staring at your phone. Take the time to consciously deepen your breath and think about something other than the work you have just completed.
  4. Effective Recharge – what do you do to really unwind? Can you remember? It may be quiet time alone, to walk, go to the gym or read a book. It may be hanging out with loved ones. If the weight of responsibility is heavy, try to prioritise activities where you can only focus on one thing. When you swim, you can’t also check your email notifications, for example!
  5. Communicate openly. Don’t suffer in silence. Share your concerns with trusted colleagues or a mentor and be transparent with your team about the challenges you’re facing. When leaders allow themselves to be vulnerable, they show enormous strength and trust in their team.
  6. Seek professional support. Before the stress becomes unmanageable, don’t hesitate to consult a therapist or coach who can help you develop personalised coping strategies.

Remember, taking care of your mental health is not a luxury, but a necessity for effective leadership.

By proactively addressing stress, you’ll not only improve your own well-being, but you’ll also set a positive example for your team and contribute to the long-term success of your organisation.

This is a guest blog which contains the views of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the IoD.

About the author

Kate Davis

Kate Davis & Associates

Kate Davis is an award-winning executive coach specialising in communications and team dynamics. She works with C Suite and senior leadership teams improving communication and leadership skills, as well as board level conflict resolution. She is founder of Kate Davis & Associates, and also works delivering organisational development programmes helping organisations attract, develop and retain the best talent.

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