Is There a Pattern to Leadership Stress?

Leaders have a different stress pattern than employees, and that probably won’t change without intentional effort.

Stress Quotient is a TTI diagnostic tool we use for revealing stressors in your workplace. After assessing a recent group, our data showed an intriguing pattern of stress unique to leaders.

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Two Unique Sources of Leadership Stress

The leaders reported higher stress in two of the seven categories in the Stress Quotient: Job Demands and Social Support. As soon as I saw the results, I knew what was going on, and it has to do with the unique role and responsibilities that leaders have.

Leaders aren’t experiencing Job Demands stress the same way that a general employee does because leaders of organizations don’t have a boss—they are the boss. An employee is responsible for meeting the demands given to her—she works through her list of tasks and then she’s done. Of course, if an employee’s workload was not reasonable to begin with (too much work or not a good fit for the employee’s skills), that employee might have stress related to job demands. But if the job fits and expectations are reasonable, then job-demand stress should be low.

This isn't always true for leaders because their task list never ends. Leaders look around and see everything that needs to be done. If it’s not anyone else’s job, then it automatically becomes the leader’s job. By definition, unending demands produce high-stress levels, because it is impossible to ever complete your work.

Secondly, leaders of organizations suffer from Social Support stress, because they do not have peers within the company. Looking at a typical org chart, you will quickly see that there are fewer and fewer names as you move toward the top of the page. Patrick Lencioni warns leaders not to seek social support from their own employees because of the damage it does to accountability and perceptions of favoritism.

So, who do leaders talk to when they have problems? Employees can band together to complain about the boss, or long hours, or who didn’t wash their own dishes in the breakroom, but leaders risk hurting themselves and their organization if they unload emotionally on employees. Lack of social support is widely known to produce higher stress—which makes it an occupational hazard of leadership.

What can leaders do to lower two of the major leadership stress factors, job demands and lack of social support? Here are two ways to get started now and two options to consider for longer-term solutions.

Leadership Stress 1: Job Demands

Take off the cape. You may be a high-capacity individual, but you are not superhuman. Just because it needs to be done does not mean that you have to do it. Before adding something new to your to-do list, ask yourself whether you are really the best person for the task and if it is a good use of your extremely valuable time. If the answer to either question is “no,” then don’t accept that demand.

To make this work in the long term, you need the ability to delegate work. Is delegation a skill you need to develop, or do you not have qualified people to delegate to? If it’s a skill issue, consider a leadership coach or other self-development option. If it’s a qualified people issue, consider investing in leadership development for your direct reports. Would your leadership stress lessen if you knew you could hand off a weighty responsibility and leave the office knowing that it would still be done well.

Leadership Stress 2: Social Support

Recognize that being a leader does not exempt you from needing social support. Attending an industry conference, a business leaders’ lunch, or a professional service organization may not add money to your bottom line, but it could help you find support from other leaders. Listening to others discuss the same leadership stress issues that you have could be a good start to finding the support you need.

In the long run, casual or infrequent social events are not the same as having a dedicated support network. Consider investing in joining a peer board, a mastermind group, or a leadership development group. There you will find people to provide trustworthy, confidential, and ongoing social support. Start to build your network of like-minded peers to create a group outside of your workplace.

Leadership is not a sprint. Investing in your long-term health is just smart.

Does this sound like you?

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