Leading people through end of year stress

A little stress can be beneficial, but unhealthy stress impacts performance, wellbeing, health and relationships. Learn how to spot it and manage it.

It's that time of year when nature tells us we need to be slowing down and hibernating, and culturally we are meant to be making time for special memories and connections with family and friends.

But that ignores a lot of people's reality...

Work schedules, commutes and school runs don't allow for lie-ins and holing up until spring. And, for many, the deadlines and targets at calendar year end can be greater than at any other time of year.

Christmas plans and expectations often add even more burden, obligation, 'shoulds' and 'doing' on us, at at time when we really want to give into just 'being'.

All this, against a backdrop of the doom and gloom of inflation, soaring energy prices, strikes, winter bugs, international conflicts, environmental concerns, lockdown hangover and the sneaking suspicion that 2023 might just offer more rinse and repeat overwhelm at work...

It's no wonder that anxiety and stress can feel a lot right now!

❓❓ What's important about that for you as a leader ❓ ❓

💡 Heightened stress responses are key factors in low wellbeing scores, disconnection and loss of talent in an organisation.

💡 Emotionally intelligent and confident leaders can recognise and anticipate stress responses in themselves and others, before they become an issue, and are well-prepared to navigate and bounce back from them.

Our threat reflexes originally developed in one of the oldest parts of our brain to keep us safe from potentially life-threatening circumstances - very much like animals still exhibit when cornered or overwhelmed.

But for humans, they now flare in response to situations that we not only experience as overwhelming or threatening - but also to many things that we perceive or anticipate could be socially, emotionally, physically, mentally or psychologically threatening.  

These reflexes haven't evolved with our modern stimuli and we often embody them in a way that is disproportionate to the threat (whether real or imagined).

We may behave in ways that we later regret, or that negatively impact what's really important to us.

You will notice threat and stress reflexes show up in your team and yourself as:

➡️ Fight. This can look like overt aggression or micro aggression. It can present as people being fired up, irrational, defensive, uncooperative, sometimes volatile, and they lack the ability to be curious and open-minded. 

➡️ Flight. Under stress, some people will look to run away from the scenario, or even hand their notice in and move on from the role and/or company entirely.

➡️ Freeze. This person will hide in meetings, in decision making, in relationships, for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. They don't feel safe to be visible and authentic, and their performance and results suffer.

➡️ Fawn. Stress can result in people seeking out the path of least threat and least resistance. They fear the repercussions of speaking or standing for their truth, so they prioritise pleasing others and fawning to fit in and survive. It makes for a compliant team, but not an innovative, nor resourceful, nor empowered one.

➡️ Flop. Particularly common at this time of year, combined with nature's push to hibernate. This stress reflex would have us get back under our duvets and stop interacting with the world around us, altogether. In your team, it might look like sick days, or energetic withdrawal.

➡️ Flock. One of our greatest fears as human beings is to be an outcast - to not fit in. We are pack animals and our instincts tell us we will safer when we feel we belong to a greater social group. When stress makes us feel threatened, one reflex can be to flock together to create an echo chamber that can be highly damaging to a team and organisation.

➡️ Flap. Last but not least, the giving away of our inner leadership strengths; our resourcefulness, creativity, clarity, calm and growth mindset, to become ineffective and run around like a headless chicken.

Some expressions of stress will be more volatile than others. You also need to keep an eye out for those that are more subtle.

💡 When you develop the ability to anticipate, recognise and then move out of your own threat reflex and into clarity and calm, you put yourself back in control as to how you choose to respond.

💡 That will support you to interrupt the patterns of your auto reflexes to get curious about whether the threat is imagined or real (which creates different possibilities about how to deal with it).

💡 For your team, when you are in control of your responses, even when you are stressed, it will help you to create wider psychological safety and role model the behaviours you want to encourage in them.

💡 The key is to start with your own self-awareness and use it to put yourself back into a non-stressed, resourceful state from which to lead both others and yourself.

💡 This is the point at which you get to intentionally recognise and design whether you are part of the solution, or could be compounding the problem.

I encourage you to experiment with my simple four-step process:

1) Next time you feel threatened or stressed, notice which of the seven stress reflexes is showing up and where you are feeling it in your body. It might be a combination of them. Name it.

2) What's the story you're telling yourself about this? Is it true? Is it really true, or are your threat reflexes getting their claws in and creating a disproportionate reaction in you?

3) Quieten your mind with a simple mindful breathing exercise. Close or lower your eyes, breath in slowly and deeply for five seconds, and out for five seconds. Focus on each breath and as you exhale say out loud "I am letting go of this tension". Repeat at least two more times. This will allow you to access your calm, clear, resourceful part of your brain.

Alternatively, if you'd like to experience my 4-minute guided mindful breathing exercise, I have a couple for you to sample here.

4) If the threat or source of stress is real, rather than imagined, what are your opportunities to respond to it, from this clearer mindset? Journalling on 'what is possible now?' can help you to unravel your thoughts. Don't sensor yourself - just allow all your thoughts to flow and see what comes up for you.

Whether real or perceived, the effects of stress can have a hugely negative impact on our physical and mental health, confidence, relationships and wellbeing.

If you'd like to explore more about what is really going on for you, then get in touch. I'd love to hear from you!