How do leaders build improved stress resilience?
I remember years ago grumbling to my dad about how stressed I was.
He didn't have much sympathy.
His frame of reference was very different to mine. As an officer in the RAF Marine-craft Section, his experience of stress was being at the helm of a small ship battling to stay afloat during a massive storm in the Atlantic.
He found it hard to understand my stress when in his mind, all I was trying to do was organise a few doctors and nurses.
I've been thinking a lot about stress recently. I'm in the middle writing all the posts for a 31 day series on stress and how to manage it.
I aim to publish one post each day with a little teaching and a challenge to complete. My aim is to share what I've learnt over the years about how to manage stress effectively and build improved stress resilience.
I nearly didn't make it though: too much stress can be deadly.
My 'near death' experience is what motivates me to look for ways to help and support other people, sharing what experience taught me. If you've not seen it, What Is Stress Management About? is a useful entry point to my work on stress.
So, while it’s true that the kinds of things which cause me stress don't have anything to do with surviving to live another day, nonetheless, they still affect me.
Over the years that I've been a healthcare leader, it's been fashionable from time to time to look to the military for answers to some of the challenges healthcare faces.
There's no doubt that there's plenty to learn. Field medicine, leadership in general and the military's deep expertise in the management of logistics are just three examples of where the military excel..
More recently there's been an emerging trend of military figures recounting their stories and mapping their experiences onto the corporate world. Jocko Willink is a famous example. Here is a former Navy Seal offering advice to business executives about leadership. You might have read his book Extreme Ownership.
Henry L Thompson is a lesser-known name, but in the context of stress management, he's got a lot of insights.
In addition to being an academic psychologist, he also had a distinguished military career. In The Stress Effect: Why Smart Leaders Make Dumb Decisions, he outlines three aspects of a person’s mental approach which can make a significant difference in managing stress.
- Stress Management Capacity — Thompson says that stress management capacity is the total ability the leader has to manage stress. Everyone has a zone of comfort for stress. Too much and you'll run the risk of burnout. Too little and you're likely to become stale.
- Cognitive Resilience — This is your ability to continue to function well while under high-pressure. Cognitive resilience includes memory awareness, information retrieval, and reasoning sharpness — your ability to keep your rational-self functioning.
- Stress-Resilient Emotional Intelligence — Thompson says this is your ability to resist the negative influences of stress on the emotional aspects of decision-making by flexing and adapting to sudden change. Staying calm under pressure and maintaining your ability to understand and interpret emotions in others will enhance your ability to maintain peak performance.
I think the classifications are a useful framework which you can use to start to build improved stress resilience for yourself.
One suggestion I'll make is that you work on stress resilience by looking at your daily habits.
7 Stress Resilience Building Habits
Continued personal development and a consistent search for new knowledge and skills will help you deepen your ability to manage what comes your way.
Cultivating and maintaining the emotional and social support network that will be there for you when things get difficult.
3. Exercise and Nutrition
Building adequate exercise and proper diet into your day will maintain your physical and mental well-being.
Ensuring that you provide enough time for your body and mind to be refreshed with sufficient sleep.
Staying tuned in to your current stress management capacity, cognitive resilience, and stress resilient emotional intelligence will help you to identify early warning signals.
Monitoring your self-talk and working to make optimism and positivity your default mental setting.
Remembering to be grateful for all the small and often overlooked simple pleasures you will encounter each day.
I beleive stress resilience is something which you can develop.
Think of it as a muscle you want to strengthen.
You can't just throw a switch to make yourself more resilient; it's something you have to work at to achieve.
Daily practice — working on habits and thinking patterns like the seven mentioned above — will steadily increase the range of stress-inducing events that you can cope with effectively.
As for me, while I'm not ever physically in danger, there are plenty of ways in which I can easily get myself into difficulty.
Leadership is always about choices. There's no way to get every one of them right.
Consequently, I think every leader must remember to be kind to themselves.
That's why self-care is a vital ingredient in maintaining a healthy balance between what you aspire to and who you are today.
What about you — what do you do to build up your stress resilience? Leave a comment below.
Important: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you follow these links and make a purchase I will get a small reward at no extra cost to you. Feel free to sidestep the links and Google them instead.