Fast-paced high-pressure environments are fast becoming the norm in the modern workplace. Throw a global health crisis into the mix and it’s no wonder that burnout is slowly escalating, particularly for middle managers and women.
While it can be easy to overwork when you’re managing a company let alone juggling multiple ventures, the accompanying stress can cause sleepless nights and other physical complaints that can make you wonder if it’s worth sacrificing your health. The most highly effective leaders know this and take steps to ensure that their never-ending to-do lists have built-in practices that help them to better manage their stress.
From therapeutic baths and music hobbies to two-minute breathing exercises, no two leaders are the same in how they monitor and respond to stressful situations. Their consistent rituals and techniques are a testimony to the idea that small incremental habits can be life-changing.
With the World Health Organisation defining burnout as "a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed" taking matters into our own hands by identifying and handling our stressors is critical.
High-quality work and peak productivity are hampered by feelings of burnout regardless of how ambitious our goals are. Let those words sink in as you become acquainted with the inspirational stress-busting tips from the most influential figures of our time.
The stress management techniques of highly successful people
Running a nation is certainly not an easy task for anyone, especially during a time when multiple crises require your attention. The former president of the United States took actions to reform the healthcare system, end US military presence in Iraq and address both the global financial crisis and climate change.
His daily ritual of walking for one minute along the colonnade at the beginning and end of each day granted him a chance to mentally prepare for what awaited him at work and at home.
"On the way back to the residence in the evenings, my briefcase stuffed with papers, I’d use the time to clear my mind, anticipating my dinner with Michelle and the girls, and an exuberant greeting from the dogs," Obama posted on Instagram on 11 November, 2020.
One of the biggest losses with remote work can be the contextual markers that create clear distinctions between work and leisure. Obama’s brief open-air commutes are a powerful reminder of their importance by offering a moment of respite and reflection.
In an interview with The Huffington Post Obama explained that his steady temperament, consistent exercise routine in the morning and family time also aided him in keeping stress at bay.
"I’m very consistent about spending time with family," he says. "And when you have dinner with your daughters – particularly teenage daughters – they’ll keep you in your place and they’ll teach you something about perspective."
The Goop Founder, whose business revolves around self-care and wellness, insists the secret to a good night’s sleep is a bath at night.
According to Dr Bobby Buka, a New York based dermatologist, our skin releases endorphins in the presence of warm water.
"I've always been a big bath person, but this bath — it's called The Martini — has become even more critical over the last few months," Paltrow admitted during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The entrepreneur turned to the expertise of her acupuncturist in curating the perfect therapeutic bath, which comprises chia seeds, passionflower, valerian root as well as wild-crafted frankincense and myrrh.
For mother-of-two Paltrow, her daily bathing ritual is a symbolic gesture of washing the day off and disconnecting from technology.
"I got really into taking them when I was 22 and shooting Emma in London," she explains. "I fell in love with the ritual of it – lighting a candle and having a cup of tea or a whiskey, depending on my day."
The British billionaire and Virgin Group Co-Founder dedicates 60 minutes of his day to his health, even if this means waking up at five or six o’clock in the morning to play tennis or kitesurf. Without this regular physical workout, Branson wouldn’t be able to perform as well as he does.
"The only reason I’m able to do all the things I do and to keep on top of a busy schedule without getting too stressed is because I stay fit," Branson says.
Research suggests that exercise makes our brains more resilient to stress and less likely for it to interfere with our normal brain function.
As a philanthropist Gates knows that the key to helping others is to take care of yourself first and foremost. Being aware of your personal warning signs of stress can equip you to better manage it.
"Sometimes I get breathless. I start breathing just from my throat up, and I can actually hear myself," Gates explains. "Other times, I have this chronic place in my back that as soon as I start to feel it, I know there’s been too much in my day."
Similarly to Obama, Gates doesn’t always have the time to spend more than a few minutes to replenish herself during the day. Instead, she’ll reach for her favourite meditation app – Headspace – or a breathing app and choose an option that takes about three to five minutes to bring her back into balance.
"We don’t always have 20 minutes to meditate, but I learned from a great meditation teacher that if you just sit in small increments throughout the day, those moments will add up like pearls on a string," she says.
The benefit of this approach is that "by the end of the day, you have a string of beautiful pearls".
An advocate for mindfulness at work, the CEO of Salesforce had meditation rooms on each floor installed in one of the company’s newly built offices in San Francisco in an attempt to cultivate more innovation. The idea was sparked by 30 monks who visited Benioff and commented on the amount of talking within the workplace.
"There’s a ‘mindfulness’ zone where employees can put their phones into a basket or whatever, and go into an area where there’s quietness," Benioff said in 2016.
Five years later, Benioff affirms that meditation is still a daily practice, but the CEO has also learned that balance is an important aspect of his stress management.
He explains how his morning meditation ritual helps him to approach the day refreshed and open to possibility. Beyond this spiritual practice, Benioff prioritises exercise, family time and attending to the demands of work.
"All of those things are important. And when I do all of those things, I feel pretty good every day. And when I’m all of a sudden forgetting to do one of those things, I’m not," he admits.
Mark Bertolini , Former CEO of Aetna, and Arianna Huffinton, Founder and CEO of Thrive Global, are among the top business leaders who incorporate meditation into their busy schedules.
For Amazon’s Founder and Executive Chair, stress comes about when we fail to take action when it is necessary. He describes this as a thought that looms in the back of your mind and must be addressed for the stress to dissipate.
"I find as soon as I identify it, and make the first phone call, or send off the first email message, or whatever it is that we’re going to do to start to address that situation — even if it’s not solved — the mere fact that we’re addressing it dramatically reduces any stress that might come from it," Bezos reflects.
Growing up in a family where Nooyi and her sister would engage in role play at the dinner table instilled the former CEO of PepsiCo with the confidence she needed to deal with stressful situations. Imagining herself as a president when she was a child served as a powerful reminder in her adult years of her immense capabilities.
Nooyi would recite to herself: "'I can do this better than anyone else can, and if everything else fails, they're going to come to me and say, ‘Fix it,’ because I know I’m that good," she told Business Insider. "Remember, I could be president of India!"
While Buffett’s well-known public displays where he plays the ukulele are fun and entertaining, research by the National Library of Medicine indicates that leisure activities provide recovery from and resistance to daily stressors.
According to former Google career coach Jenny Blake, hobbies also help us to generate ideas.