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Why Am I So Stressed? [The Question Every Boss Must Ask and Answer]

Dec 21, 2020

Portrait unhappy young woman talking on mobile phone looking down. Human face expression, emotion, bad news reactionIf you're combating stress or extreme stress, the first thing you should know is you're not alone—and you're not wrong to feel angry, frustrated or anything else. In fact, the first step in getting past any negative feeling is to acknowledge that you have it.

As you've no doubt figured out, stressful feelings take on new dimensions when you're the boss, especially when your formal or informal job description includes leading others through a crisis.

To help you get a better handle on your stress, here are seven reasons you may be feeling drained—and remedies for stress to help you overcome each one.  

1. Dealing with uncertainty

"Fully inhabit your role." — a manager's advice to me, as a new supervisor

You might not even like being referred to as "boss." Especially now, in the midst of a world crisis. Yet the more you can step into your role—not with an attitude but a healthy sense of responsibility—the more you you can quell your team's uncertainty and better manage your own.

Let your team know, verbally and nonverbally, you're at the helm and you have their backs. Here are six excellent questions you can use with your team to generate a healthy discussion:

  • What are the uncertainties we are dealing with?
  • What do these uncertainties make possible?
  • What do they make necessary?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen? And what could we do to prepare for it?
  • What can we control?

Getting the answers out into the open can be uncomfortable; yet it can also help relieve a great deal of pent-up anxiety. You might also uncover new options for how to deal with the uncertainties at hand.

2. Dealing with grief and loss

"We're not moving on, but we're moving forward." — a friend, many months after having lost his wife

Back in March 2020, Harvard Business Review published the excellent article, That Discomfort You're Feeling Is Grief. The author interviewed grief expert David Kessler, who used the term "anticipatory grief."

Even now, I think of anticipatory grief as the existential byproduct of uncertainty: the pending losses, the realization of how much lies outside our control, including to some degree, grief itself.

Much as we might want to contain it, check the box and move on, grief is inherently messy. It seems to operate on its own agenda and timetable. Never have I known it to resolve or dissipate early—or stay neatly in its place. On the contrary, it seems to defy being compartmentalized.

Yet somehow knowing and accepting these things makes grief easier to handle. If you're in the throes of  anticipatory grief, or any other kind, give it the time and attention it needs. Give these things to yourself as well. 

3. Compassion fatigue

"Nobody's beyond my therapeutic reach!" — my counseling theories professor, poking fun at his students on the first day of class

Even if you're not dealing with grief and loss on a personal level, you may be unconsciously absorbing the grief and loss of those around you. As a boss, you may be privy to  the emotional struggles of individual team members in ways the rest of your team is not. All the more reason you might be feeling stressed.

If this stress accumulates and becomes a pattern, it turns into compassion fatigue.

The big thing to know about compassion fatigue

It's real and not necessarily your burden to carry. Even as a trained, licensed counselor with a good track record, I know all too well what it is to be in over my head.

I also know that if you pretend, as my professor said, that nobody's beyond your therapeutic reach, you will end up beyond therapeutic reach—not permanently, of course. But even a few days of this is more than you were meant to take. As best you can, don't let it happen. 

Instead, know your limitations and honor them. The first step is to realize you're not a trained counselor (unless you are). I say that not to diminish your strengths as a boss but to give you a healthy "out."

Even highly trained, experienced counselors (including my professor Dr. J) sometimes had to make referrals. Why would you and I be any different? Does your workplace offer an employee assistance program (EAP)? Are there other resources in your community that could help you help your team?

For more about how to deal with compassion fatigue including how to recognize it, please see What Is Compassion Fatigue?

4. Not getting enough sleep

“Sleep is the best meditation.” — Dalai Lama

Despite being a poor meditator, or maybe because of it, I find great wisdom and comfort from the Dalai Lama's statement. Most of us don't take our sleep requirements seriously enough. 

According to SleepFoundation.org, sleep debt (getting less than the required amount of rest each night) is cumulative. Which means the more nights you miss out on the sleep you need, even by an hour or less, the greater the toll on your physical and mental performance. 

If you're doing any of the followingdealing with uncertainty, leading a team, checking in with your team to make sure they're okay, or experiencing grief on any level, it's probably time to put sufficient sleep back at the top of your list. 

Here's a helpful, upbeat YouTube video from my friend Jeff Scheuer, Beducation - Top 10 Tips for Better Sleep. The more you take care of others, the more you you need and deserve sufficient sleep.

5. Doing too much

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” — Warren Buffet

With more and better sleep, you'll have a much easier time knowing when to say no—and much more willingness to make it happen. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What are the commitments or activities that are taking up the most of my energy or time? Be sure to include those from your personal life as well as your professional life. 
  • Which of these are non-negotiable (e.g., family)? Identifying your non-negotiable yeses can make it much easier to say no to everything else. Every no to your negotiable list frees more time and energy for the commitments you value most.
  • What am I willing to let go? What's the best, simplest or more graceful way to handle it? 

As a manager or leader, look for ways to modify these questions so they apply to your team. For example, are there initiatives your team is pursuing at the expense of something more valuable? Now is a good time to reassess, and if necessary, refocus.

6. Feeling overwhelmed at work

If you're feeling overwhelmed at work, or home or both, it may help to recall what's been helpful to you in the past. A partial list from my own mental archives:

  • Listing all my projects and deadlines, along with each one's estimated completion time
  • Arranging the list in priority order
  • Landing one plane at a time; i.e., completing one project at a time
  • Delegating whenever possible or feasible
  • Finding the humor, with friends at work and friends outside of work
  • Immersing yourself in something different your work (e.g., if you spend hours behind a computer screen, spending time in the kitchen preparing and enjoying a good meal)
  • Taking time every day for silence—and fresh air
  • Recognizing when you need to take a break

What helps you destress when your workload gets to be too much? Keep this list nearby and refer to it often. 

7. Holiday stress

The same things that help you deal with uncertainty, deal with grief and loss, and curb your compassion fatigue can help you enjoy more peaceful, meaningful holidays. Examples: 

  • Honoring your limitations
  • Listing your (holiday) negotiables and non-negotiables
  • Getting more sleep

"Gratitude is a game-changer." — Fr. Joe Freedy

Here's one I've barely touched on but need to mention now: gratitude. I realize gratitude can feel hard to come by when you're stressed and overwhelmed. But that may be precisely when it's most helpful to cultivate and express it.

Along those lines, here's an article from Mayo Clinic called To improve your health, practice gratitude

What are you most grateful for this year?

What brought the biggest smiles or the most comfort to your heart? Here are my top 3: 

  • A safe, healthy and necessary visit with my parents
  • The birth of my great niece, Josephine Hope (Josie)
  • A loved one beating cancer for the second time

I can barely see my screen.

Will 2021 Be Better?

I don't have an answer for that. But the question I pose to you is the same one I pose to myself: Will your 2021 be better? Make it a yes.

P.S. Interested in working together toward that outcome? Reach out to me today to get started.


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