Simple Stress Management Strategies for Leaders (That Actually Work) - a man with hands on his head in front of laptop

Simple Stress Management Strategies for Leaders (That Actually Work)

Nina Candido
March 16, 2023
March 15, 2023

This blog post was written by Nina Candido, Senior HR Leader. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here.

Is stress different for leaders?


Interestingly, there are studies showing leaders actually experience less stress at work than other employees. This is largely a function of leaders having better access to information and more control over a variety of work decisions.

According to a recent survey on work stressors, 52% of participants said missing information was the top work stressor. Missing or inadequate information leaves employees feeling uncertain, and uncertainty is stressful for almost anyone. Leaders are less impacted by this stressor because they are “in the know” and experience less uncertainty.

A lack of control (real and perceived) over important elements of work life is another critical stressor for employees. For leaders, who are often making or contributing to workplace decisions, this issue is less significant. Leaders typically have greater flexibility in general, and especially around things such as work schedules.

And no.

Despite leaders being less impacted by two significant workplace stressors, there are other studies saying they are more stressed than everyone else—but for different reasons. This means some of the strategies to help employees manage stress at work will be less effective for leaders. 

Managing stress begins with understanding

While leaders are impacted by many of the same stressors as other employees, the nature of leadership means they have myriad added responsibilities that come with added stressors. This can create constant pressure to meet and exceed every expectation. 

What triggers stress for leaders?

Leaders worry over everything from the company’s financial performance to customer satisfaction, to mounting attrition rates, to employee health and wellbeing, to what if we have another global pandemic. Leaders can be plagued by a sense of dread that stems from the pressure (real or perceived) of having to successfully juggle everything.

Some common stressors faced by leaders at work include: 

  • Fear of failure and consequences of missing goals
  • Working long hours
  • Keeping up the façade of perfectionism
  • Having no or inadequate work-life boundaries

This is hardly an exhaustive list, but is a good starting point to help leaders understand what’s driving their stress. With understanding, leaders can take steps to manage, reduce, or even eliminate the stress triggered by certain factors.

What does stress look like and feel like?

Everyone has both physical and psychological response to stress, and recognizing your early warning signs will allow you to intervene with mitigating actions quickly. Some common reactions to stress can include: 

Physical responses

  • Changes to breathing (taking rapid breaths or holding your breath) 
  • Rapid or racing pulse 
  • Perspiring or feeling hot
  • Upset stomach

Psychological responses

  • Impatience and Irritability
  • Hostility or anger
  • Decreased concentration
  • Sadness

Learning to pay attention to changes in your body or psychological state and recognizing when those changes have been triggered by stress, is a critical step in managing stress. Knowing when you are going into a stress state allows you to more quickly take action to mitigate it.

How much stress is too much?

This is very much a personal matter—everyone processes stressors differently and have different things in place to help mitigate the impact of stress. For those who would benefit from a stress measure, the Workplace Stress Scale, created by the American Institute of Stress, allows leaders to quantify their stress level based on eight (8) questions about their work situation. The higher your score on this scale the more urgent your need to take actions to reduce your stress.

With or without the stress scale, knowing if a leader’s stress levels are too high is critical in deciding the best course of action. Options for dealing with stress range from doing nothing (not recommended) to seeking professional help. Generally, a combination of strategies will produce the best results.

Stress Strategies that Work

Start by recognizing physical and mental responses to stress. The better leaders become at early recognition the more effective they are at mitigating and preventing longer-term effects of stress. 

As with any health issue, quick action leads to better outcomes. The longer stress continues without effective management, the greater the likelihood of burnout, which is a response to chronic stress, will follow. So, learn your warning signs and be ready to take action with robust strategies and an effective toolkit.

1. Put yourself first

Think about the pre-flight instructions for using the oxygen mask: if you’re travelling with someone who needs assistance, secure your mask first. 

Most leaders think of everyone and everything before focusing on themselves. But effective leaders understand they can only be their best when their mental and physical well-being is cared for. Some best practices include:

2. Accept help

It’s not uncommon for leaders to isolate as they become more overwhelmed and stressed. But this can lead to greater stress due to feelings of loneliness. Asking for help is the ultimate win-win. 

It keeps you connected, and it can strengthen relationships by finding new ways of working together. According to Brené Brown, it’s a great way to build trust with others. And, most obviously, it helps lighten your load.

3. Talk about stress and mental health

Leaders don’t do enough talking about stress and mental health at work. Mental health remains a taboo topic, and it’s up to leaders to actively work to eliminate the stigma. Talking about stress is a great way to begin the conversation.

And guess what? Employees are very aware when their leaders are stressed. Some of the worst manifestations of stress include irritability, hostility, and anger. If your stress has reached high levels, your employees already know; it’s time to start talking about it.

4. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries

Despite (mis)perceptions that leaders should be all things to all people at all times, boundaries actually make you a stronger leader.

Some of the most important boundaries to begin with are:

Life-Work balance 

Putting “life” first here is by design, it should come first. Leaders need to honor life-work balance.

  • Take all PTO time available, just as employees are encouraged to do.
  • Leave work behind when on PTO
  • Hide your email app on your phone.
  • Plan time before and after PTO to set up and catch up.
  • Identify and broadly communicate the contact(s) while you’re away.

Disconnect during off-work time

The pressure to be available 24/7 will continue as long as you are available 24/7. 

  • Practice the skill of unplugging.
  • Tell your team and your leaders what days and hours you are available
  • Set explicit expectations about the reasons (emergency situations)—if any—that would warrant breaching this boundary. 

Manage time and expectations

  • Prioritize what is most urgent and important to tackle first and schedule time for the other things on your “to-do” list. 
  • Delegate, not only to share the workload, but also as a way to provide challenges and opportunities to your team.
  • Minimize interruptions, which can be a huge time robber. Integrating scheduled time with the team, together and individually, reduces their need to interrupt. 
  • Get comfortable saying “no” when requests fall outside your boundaries. Instead say, “I’ll be happy to take care of that _______________ (in the morning, after this meeting, at our next scheduled meeting, etc.)”

Identifying and managing stress for leaders is an ongoing activity involving a variety of strategies and new practices. And remember, it takes time and repetition to create new habits, but patience and perseverance will pay off.

Related articles:

The Stress of Leadership 

Stress in leaders: what's driving it and what's the impact?

Stress management for leaders responding to a crisis

Setting Boundaries at Work: Why It’s Crucial

The Importance of Setting Boundaries for Mental Health

Unconventional Advice For Workplace Leaders: Work Less

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Nina Candido
Nina Candido
Nina Candido is a Sr. HR Leader with success working to achieve transformative outcomes in organizations experiencing rapid growth or M&A activity. She is a builder focused on unlocking individual and organizational potential and is passionate about creating environments where employees can thrive and grow beyond their own highest expectations.