For those of us who are ambitious, the day we are promoted to a leadership position can’t come quick enough. The chance to have more responsibility, greater control over the work, the opportunity to delegate tasks and ultimately take home a larger pay packet is very appealing.
Yet for many of us, we aren’t prepared for the reality of leadership. Sleepless nights worried about deliverables, scrutiny over your team’s engagement scores, having to tow the company line even when you may not agree, making decisions that impact other’s livelihoods, having to police policies and procedures, and being torn between keeping some members of the team happy and not others.
A 2018 survey found 64 per cent of senior leaders suffered mental health conditions including anxiety, stress and depression, with work identified as a key contributor. The same survey also found one in four of those leaders felt they had less support for mental health issues since taking on a leadership role.
Interestingly, new research shows that anxiety and leadership go hand in hand because when put together in the right amounts, anxiety-prone leaders can produce better and more innovative results. Several studies have found people with anxiety seem to make better decisions in challenging circumstances, which makes them ideal for leadership positions. That is, if they manage their anxiety levels and pro-actively take care of their mental wellbeing.
Thriving leaders have a toolbox of wellbeing strategies they use to manage their anxiety. Aside from enjoying their work more, research shows they are more likely to become better, stronger and more empathetic leaders.
And while everyone has their triggers, most leaders share some common anxieties that relate to their demanding roles. Here we share a list of the nine factors that contribute to leadership anxiety and some strategies to help you master those feelings and be the best leader you can be.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety is your body’s reaction to stress. But while all people experience some level of work-related stress, leaders take on a significantly larger portion due to the high-responsibility nature of their roles.
Leadership stress manifests in many different forms. Overwhelming workload, conflict with or between team members, struggling to deliver the required results, delivering important presentations, running a difficult meeting, undertaking performance reviews, fighting for budgets – the list goes on. And while this list may be enough to make you pass up on that promotion to leader, the way we view these events can help or hinder our anxiety.
Research suggests if you view your body’s stress response as helpful for your performance, rather than as a sign you aren’t’ coping, you are likely to be less anxious, more confident, and your physical stress response may change. In fact, when you view your stress response as helpful, your blood vessels may stay relaxed, and your heart maintains a healthier state - like what happens when you experience moments of joy and courage.
Tip: Tune into your stress mindset – acknowledge the times you feel stressed. Is it in response to something you care about? What is at stake? Why does it matter to you? When facing a stressful situation, ask yourself what could go right and what could go wrong? Then ask yourself if the worst were to happen, why it may be a blessing? When you consider these factors, you will be amazed at the way your mindset can shift.
2. Lack of time and resources
When it comes to anxiety, research has shown good time management can directly benefit your mental wellbeing. Managing your time to your values and priorities, structuring your day and creating a schedule you can follow, can minimise your anxiety and maximise your productivity.
Leaders should be spending a significant portion of their time planning. This includes strategy, resources, capacity, and deliverables. Good planning can help to build efficiencies, prevent crises, avoid distractions, and ultimately help your team to smoothly deliver to deadlines.
Tip: Undertaken an urgent/important analysis of your task list. Start by classifying the tasks on your to-do list into four categories. 1. Important but not urgent. 2. Urgent and important. 3. Not urgent and not important. 4. Urgent but not important, then taking appropriate action.
Important but not urgent (plans) – aim to invest a significant proportion of time here to help eliminate time wasters.
Urgent and important (crises) – these are tasks you couldn’t predict or left to the last minute, so they became urgent. By spending more time planning, the aim is to develop systems to reduce or eliminate these tasks.
Not urgent and not important (distractions) – these activities are distractions so leaders look at how they can reduce or avoid spending time, effort, and resources on these tasks.
Urgent but not important (interruptions) keep you busy but have no real value. You want to renegotiate deadlines, delegate where possible, challenge whether these tasks are really adding value.
By undertaking this analysis, you will rapidly identify the activities you should focus on. By filtering out “busy” activities that provide minimal value to long term goals, you regain control of your environment and external demands, rather than allow them to control you and ultimately freeing up time for things that matter. After all, leaders are always working with limited resources, so can’t just focus on getting lots of work done; they need to focus on getting the right things done.
3. Being fake versus authentic
Being a leader means you rarely have the luxury of saying and doing what you feel. The need to be professional overrides the need for your authentic self to always be open and honest with your employees. Perhaps you know redundancies are coming, maybe a member of your team is being performance managed, maybe a team member has a health issue, maybe you don’t agree with a colleague’s approach, maybe you are sick of covering up for someone else’s laziness, maybe your values and ethics are being challenged by a company decision.
Whatever the situation may be, sometimes you can’t speak your mind, which can cause mental fatigue and irritability, which not only impacts you but may also spread to your team.
Tip: Find a balance, practise self-awareness – It’s a fine balance, but it’s important to try and develop your self-awareness skills and build a reasonable level of emotional connection with your team. Depending on your personality, workplace and general team environment, you may choose to be more transparent than other leaders. Ultimately, the more your true authentic self can align to the leadership role you are in, the less anxiety you will experience when it comes to this divide of the real and professional self. Sometimes you will just have to speak your mind and deal with the consequences which may not be as bad as bottling it up.
4. Always the bearer of bad news
A key part of being a leader is making difficult decisions and sometimes this means you will be the bearer of bad news. Having to deal with unhappy employees who take every decision as a personal attack rather than a business need influenced by environment or circumstances, can be draining. Further, these reactions can make a very difficult situation even more disheartening. Some leaders struggle to come to terms with delivering difficult decisions causing them angst and even guilt.
Tip: Establish good rapport, be empathetic and rationalise – having a good working relationship with your team will make it easier to have difficult conversations. It’s important to be authentic, empathetic, and to explain why the business has come up with this solution. If you as a leader are struggling with carrying out the decision, it can help to rationalise on paper why the decision needed to be made by outlining the facts, pros and cons.
5. Unrealistic targets and deadlines
Leaders are paid to drive results but focusing solely on reaching targets can sometimes see you set impossibly high standards – not just for you, but also for your teams. Establishing this kind of pressure and anxiety can create a never-ending cycle, which may even lead to burnout for yourself and the entire team.
Leaders have more power than they realise when it comes to setting and achieving targets. If you can state a case for why you can’t achieve what is expected and present solutions and options, then you are going to gain respect from your colleagues and seniors. They want you to deliver - as your success is their success.
Rookie leaders complain about targets and deliverables, ask for more budget or headcount to deliver and don’t think about the big picture. Accomplished leaders will spend time thinking about what the organisation is trying to achieve and will help provide solutions that deliver a win-win.
Tip: As the leader, set the pace – think about what is needed, whether it is realistic and what it will take to deliver. Communicate effectively with the business and keep them in the loop on your team’s progress. Break tasks into manageable milestones and try and head off non-delivery early. That way you will always be on the front foot with your deliverables. Additionally, you and your team will likely find the pressure remains at healthier levels.
6. Disrupted routines
The nature of a leader’s job means they are always available. While you may not work around the clock, most leaders are generally available at all times of the day or night. Whether that be on the ground at the office or site, on call at home on nights and weekends or caught between time zones travelling around the globe.
For many leaders this can mean that nutrition, exercise, and sleep go out the window, at a time when stress levels are often high and these foundations of wellbeing a more important than ever. This lack of routine can set off a vicious cycle that leads to brain fog, overwhelm, emotional eating and higher stress levels. To cope, leaders may turn to coffee, fast-food and a wine or two most nights - and the cycle goes on.
Tip: Set up your non-negotiables. Maybe you need to have 8 hours sleep, maybe you need to get out for a run, perhaps breakfast is the most important meal of your day? Set up triggers such as parking your work out shoes by your bed each night so they are the first thing you put on in the morning, always having a banana on standby as a quick breakfast if needed, resetting your alarm so that your sleep schedule can’t be compromised. Put your self-care activities into your diary no matter where you are, or how on-call you are required to be.
7. Corporate politics
Whether you are embroiled in tousling for funding, caught between players jostling for control, or keeping those wanting to take your job or best team members from you, corporate politics can’t be avoided, especially when different agendas are at play. Trying to stay ahead of corporate politics can be a mental game with more moves than chess.
Adding value to your role, keeping your head down, swimming your own race, being authentic and establishing good relationships certainly helps ward off the political games. Ultimately though, you will meet all types in your working life – some who are willing to push boundaries much further than you.
Tip – Fight the battles worth fighting. Be authentic, listen and assume everyone has good intentions. Take a collaborative approach with a service mindset and show interest and care for all colleagues. Still, you won’t be able to avoid corporate politics so be clear on your values and your personal brand then work out which battles are worth fighting. This way you can decide where your ethical and moral boundaries sit, what actions you are prepared to take and how much you are willing to tolerate.
8. Becoming obsolete
One of the leader’s greatest fears is becoming obsolete. The idea of young blood coming in with slick new skills and technology, getting ready to push you aside, is enough to make even the most experienced and capable leaders anxious.
Many try to make up for it by placing extra focus on their strength – that is, their experience. But while the need to remain relevant and be across the new can feel overwhelming, burying your head in the sand and avoiding the fact that things are changing, may only make you feel more obsolete and anxious.
Tip: Keep an open mind and prioritise activities that help you stay ahead – Combine your experience with new ideas and up and coming strategies to get the best of both worlds. When you come to terms with the benefit and value of your experience to date, and the need to build on that with new ways of working, you will strengthen your position. Take the time to read news, stay on top of the latest industry trends, and keep in regular contact with suppliers and clients to talk through their evolving needs.
As they say, “it is lonely at the top” and while loneliness in the workforce is found across all industries and at all levels, it is much more common in overworked leaders and executives. Part of it comes with the territory; because leaders often burden all the responsibility without trusted people to brainstorm, bounce ideas off and share the load with.
That doesn’t mean leaders need to feel lonely. In recent times there has been a proliferation of industry working groups, executive coaches, mentors and even “alternative boards” designed specifically for this purpose. Helping leaders to have a safe and confidential space to air their challenges and brainstorm solutions.
Tip: Develop a group of trusted advisors – whether it be a coach, mentor or group, every leader should have experts with whom they can share work-related concerns and problems with for some fresh perspective. Not only will this help release the anxiety associated with your worries by talking about them, but by stepping back and removing yourself from the situation, having someone else look at your problems with fresh eyes may even help you come up with better solutions.
Anxiety-prone leaders can often produce better and more innovative results.
By tuning into your mindset and viewing stress as fuel for performance you can alleviate some of the ill-effects of stress.
Analysing your tasks and spending more time planning can help you to deal with a lack of time and resources.
Balancing your authentic self with your professional self can be less mentally taxing.
Establishing strong relationships can make it easier to be respected when delivering bad news.
Using your leadership influence to set realistic targets and deadlines can ensure the pressure to deliver remains at healthy levels.
Making your healthy wellbeing routines a priority helps you to be at the top of your game mentally.
Only fight the battles worth fighting so you can avoid the negative energy of corporate politics.
Keep a learning mindset because when it is combined with experience, you can become unstoppable.
Build a group of trusted advisors who can be your sounding board to minimise loneliness at the top.
If you need any assistance with hiring, contact a recruitment agency like Trojan Recruitment Group and receive advice from the experts in labour-hire, permanent and contract staff.
Need mental wellbeing support?
If this article has triggered mental health concerns for you or someone you know, there are many online support services available. Contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or talk to your GP or health professional.