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Overcoming Fatigue: Stories from Leaders on Managing Stress

Dr. Pari Namazie

28 June 2021

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As the pandemic is dragging on, fatigue and stress are plaguing organisations. Even the most resilient of business leaders still report to be in survival mode. How can we break through to overcome fatigue and restore wellbeing and high performance?

At the beginning of the year, many leaders were optimistic. “2020 was a year where all we did was survive, but 2021 will be a year to thrive,” Susanne, a C-level executive in a global company, set her goal at the beginning of 2021.

But six months into the year, when we did a review of her goals, she said she and her team were still in survival mode. There were the regular, ongoing pressures: sustaining a business and meeting performance objectives. Added to that, however, were also the challenges of managing and motivating a remote team and the continued implications of COVID Stress Syndrome — a now classified syndrome, which is caused by quarantine restrictions and other pandemic-related phenomena.

There were lessons learnt and successes in Susanne’s company, but by no means had they passed the survival stage.

Preventing burnout: Why leaders should pay more attention to stress

Pressures on Susanne and leaders like her have increased in general. The impact of adjusting to a hybrid, virtual world as well as increasing workloads and longer working days are taking a toll on employees worldwide. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

70 percent of employees reported to have had more stress and anxiety at work this year than any other previous year, according to a recent survey conducted by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence between July-August 2020, including more than 12,000 people consisting of employees, managers, HR leaders and C-Level executives across 11 countries.

C-suite executives experienced mental health issues more than their employees, as management had the hardest time collaborating with teams virtually, while managing increased stress and anxiety (, and being removed from the workplace culture). Overall, this negatively impacted mental health, causing a lack of work-life balance (35 percent), burnout (25 percent), depression from no socialization (25 percent), and loneliness (14 percent).

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The most common repercussions were sleep deprivation (40 percent), poor physical health (35 percent), reduced happiness at home (33 percent), suffering family relationships (30 percent), and isolation from friends (28 percent).

As executives try to manage and keep the business afloat by working longer hours —35 percent of people are working 40+ more hours each month— and sometimes neglecting their own work-life balance, this causes them to be even more susceptible to burnout culture than their employees.

What leaders are doing to cope with stress

Below are some of the best practices from leaders on how they manage their stress and optimise performance.

1. Self-awareness: Be gentle with yourself

A leader I recently worked with shared this fitting quote from Desiderata (Max Ehrmann): “Be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.”

Leaders are often hardest on themselves, listening to that inner critic pushing you to do more, scolding you that what you are doing is not enough. But sometimes, you need to pause and be gentle with yourself.

Many times I ask leaders, “If you met yourself in 20 years time, what would your future self tell you today?”

Ask yourself this question.

The answer you will hear will be filled with kindness and wisdom guiding you to reflect on what is important in your life now and to be true to that. Being gentle with yourself also allows you to be more empathetic towards others. Often it is in times of crisis that our humanity and kindness flourishes.

2. Be human and lead with vulnerability

As a leader you are seen as a role model of strength and confidence. I know many leaders who put this face forward, while inwardly they are struggling with emotions and self doubt.

Sometimes, strength and courage are not only the strong face you put forward, but the honesty that you too face difficult moments, you too struggle and at times are riddled with negative thoughts.

For many leaders this is a sign of weakness. But my experience has shown that most leaders find solidarity and respect when they share these messages with their employees. Employees hear honesty and relate on a personal level with their leader.

You become an even stronger role model by sharing vulnerability and also what you do to cope, continue and renew your energy.

3. Challenge yourself to see the positive

Most of the leaders I have worked with have this innate ability to see opportunities rather than threats. This has been more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. While we might feel deeper hopelessness due to the pandemic and its consequences, professionally and personally, challenge yourself to find ways to reframe the situation and turn this into opportunities waiting to be seized, relationships to be built and new avenues for learning and self-development.

I take inspiration from Michael, a Managing Director of a European subsidiary. During the pandemic, he invested in his health and well being. Never having the luxury of being in one place for several days at a time, he hired a personal trainer and became the fittest and healthiest version of himself since his twenties. This has now become a lifestyle change and shift in mindset. The shift in his leadership style and life has been phenomenal: more energy, more positivity, more creativity. Apart from an inspirational personal trainer, I bet he had a good coach too. 😉

Where and how do you begin?
Begin where your energy lies. Search for what energises and inspires you. Ask yourself what is important to you? What do you need to hold on to? What do you need to protect?

In other words, to be able to draw on the positive, you need to replenish your energy, free your mind and practice self-care. Take time for yourself, switch off from work at a certain time each day, learn a language, take up a hobby, do things that energise you. Or just have a “do nothing day”.

I am reminded of the safety message on a flight, first put on your oxygen mask BEFORE that of your child’s. To look after them as best you can, you must look after yourself first.

4. Celebrate small wins

There are unparalleled uncertainties that might not be resolved soon, and the goal posts keep shifting on a daily basis. Yet, successful leaders focus on the small wins, the things they and their teams can accomplish today or this week. Every win counts. Focusing on these victories provides a sense of direction and a much-needed boost in self-esteem and confidence.

While leaders share these messages with their teams, many also focus on small wins in their daily lives. The things that offer a sense of achievement to them personally, whether through sports, hobbies, music or artistic expressions.

This can also be done on an organisational level. We launched an online learning platform for a client recently. This created not only a sense of achievement to many individuals within the company and gave them small wins by collecting points and trophies, but it also provided an environment of fun, constructive competitiveness and enhanced team spirit.

5. Don’t go it alone

Many times a leader’s journey is a lonely one. You need to stand strong for others, be a beacon of light and hope. During these pandemic times, leaders might feel increased isolation and loneliness.

We underestimate our emotions. Many leaders go about business as usual and bottle up their emotions. Sometimes, if emotions, challenges and anxieties are unprocessed or unheeded, they might surface in a different form. The healthier approach is to sound it out with a trusted advisor, mentor or friend. Talking them out loud with a neutral and objective person can provide perspective and insight.

Therefore, it’s more important than ever to find other avenues for social connection to support you. Many leaders mentioned having a sparring partner or sounding board during these difficult times.

Setting boundaries to destress

Especially as leaders, whose job it is to take care of others, it is important to set up boundaries and take care of yourself to prevent burnout; and this way, be a role model to others.

By building these five ways into your routine

  • building self-awareness by being gentle with yourself daily
  • being human and leading with vulnerability
  • challenging yourself to focus on the positive
  • celebrating small wins
  • and setting up a support system with people you value

you give yourself permission to recharge and create a mindset to push through this survival mode. On the other side, you will emerge more human, more self-aware and more resilient for the future.

Remembering Susanne’s words, let’s make 2021 a year to thrive! Perhaps these best practices from other leaders support you, perhaps you have some of your own.

However you move forward, it starts with YOU!

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Pari Namazie

Pari Namazie

Managing Partner, Executive Coach & Leadership Facilitator

Dr. Pari Namazie | Managing Partner

Pari is a global executive coach, consultant and facilitator with over 25 years of experience. She works as a trusted advisor to leaders, teams and organisations in the fields of leadership, team development, strategy and organisational improvement. Read more

Dr. Pari Namazie

Pari is a global executive coach, consultant and facilitator with over 25 years of experience. She works as a trusted advisor to leaders, teams and organisations in the fields of leadership, team development, strategy and organisational improvement. Read more

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