Are you fit to lead? | Learning & Development | Primeast

Are you fit to lead?

Author: Sarah Cave

Date: 25/2/2020

A more complex world is demanding greater resilience from leaders

The landscape of the typical organisation has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. All the demands for better management and leadership remain but now in a very different environment. Managers are now expected to do more with less, do it more efficiently, be able to bounce back from knocks and setbacks and drive the organisation towards a better future. In other words, leadership and management have become many times more challenging. We all know that to perform at our best we need to be at our best: physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually (the original four dimensions of basic health and wellness). Yet we are all probably guilty, to some degree, of not paying sufficient attention to these areas. We carry on, keeping our 'foot on the gas', doing more, working longer, running all day meetings, never letting up, often denying our feelings and the inevitable warning signals, eating badly (if at all) and ignoring the needs for exercise and fresh air. How many of us can hold our hands up and say that we actively consider, or take part in, at least 1 activity per dimension, on, let's say, even a weekly basis? Seriously, think about it.

602,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety - new or longstanding - according to a British Government HSE Labour Force Survey

According to the research in 2018/19, the number of stress-related illnesses has increased by 20% in the last 4 years. And this is not only the case for senior leaders, but it is also occurring at a much earlier stage in leadership careers.

This is despite knowing that our best ideas come when we are not 'working the issue' and that we work best when we feel fresh. Many of us thankfully are starting to recognise the need to increase our resilience and find more energy to deal with, and succeed, in this increasingly complex business environment.

There is an underlying premise in this article that healthy leaders perform better and that there are sound business benefits to being healthier. The organisational significance of health and wellbeing for business leaders is substantial, albeit challenging to measure. PriceWaterhouseCoopers (2008) reported a variation of between 1:1 and 34:1 return on investment on cases analysed with numerous studies showing the typical return on a comprehensive wellbeing at around 4:1. However the real shift comes when it is aligned with leadership and business strategy: leaders performing at their best creating value from living well.

What is stress?

The most common form of stress is a mix of anxiety (tension and nerves) and depression (feeling flat, sad). It often comes with sleep problems, panic feelings and anger. It can also lead to a tendency to consume more alcohol.

Stress is not a black and white thing. We all have some stress in our lives and many people can function well as long as their stress levels are manageable. However, when stress builds up it can become a problem. When stress does not die down it should ring our alarm bells. You may find that you notice feeling stressed at times when you know you shouldn't; family times, watching TV, playing sport or doing an activity which you would normally use to switch off and relax. It is definitely not the same feeling as 'having a bad day' or 'feeling a bit down' and a 'good kick up the backside' will not help - stress is more complex than that. However, there are some simple steps we can all take to reduce stress and improve our bounce-back-ability.

Here are 3 self-care steps you can start today...

1 Learn to really relax

Learning to relax can be difficult especially when you feel overwhelmed and unable to switch off -however there are some techniques which you can learn that will help.

Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR) can teach you to relax the muscles which stress has flooded with energy leading to tension in them.

There are many deep relaxation aids which can be downloaded from the internet. To find out more, check out this short How to do PMR video - it's a good place to start. There are many more audio and video recordings which take you through a process of relaxing your mind and body.

You first become aware of the way stress affects your body, then use the recordings to get rid of that stress. Once you get good at it, (but remember, there are no medals, just a sense of calmness and readiness to face the world!) you will feel when stress is creeping into your body and you will be able to deal with it at a much earlier stage.

2 Pay attention to your diet

Getting this right is key to us feeling and performing better. How many of us reach for the coffee pot before we feel able to start our day? Caffeine is a stimulant which affects our central nervous system. Small amounts can help us to think more clearly, keep you alert and help you work for longer however too much tea and coffee can make you feel a lot worse. The effects of too much caffeine (a very rough guide is 6 cups of tea or coffee per day) are very similar to stress - it can make you feel nervous, irritable, agitated, shaky, have headaches, muscles twitches, increased heart rate, more rapid breathing and of course it can impact our ability to get a good night's sleep.

Stopping caffeine altogether might be a step too far for many, however monitoring and reducing our intake of caffeine can have a big impact on how we feel and remember that it's not only tea and coffee that have caffeine.

Many people who feel stressed use alcohol as a way to switch off and relax. Having a drink is fine, however when we start to rely on alcohol to cope with stress it can lead to more serious problems. Many people find that drinking alcohol can impact their sleep patterns too which in turn does not help us perform well at work.

You are what you eat! A good balanced diet will keep you on track to good performance at work. Eating at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day, avoiding sugary snacks which cause a sharp spike in blood sugar levels then an equally big crash in energy shortly afterwards, eating regular meals but avoiding eating too much, are all good tips. It's all common sense but easily forgotten when the heat is on in the workplace.

3 Do you get enough sleep and recovery?

Sleep is a key factor in how we feel when we are at work. The fact is that most of us don't get enough good quality sleep - we work late, answering emails, taking calls or catching up on work which has been interrupted or missed during the working day. Most of us think that the amount of sleep which we currently get is ok- you feel like you are functioning fine, not feeling tired during the day and can't see a problem.

However, what we don't see is the underlying impact of lack of sleep on the rest of our bodies. Lack of sleep can lead to serious medical conditions such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes and it shortens your life expectancy. If you need any more convincing, read: Why we Sleep, Matthew Walker. It will change your attitude towards sleep, for good.

How much sleep do we need? Most of us need around eight hours of good-quality sleep a night to function properly but some need more and some less. What matters is that you find out how much sleep you need and then try to achieve it. As a general rule, if you wake up tired and spend the day longing for a chance to have a nap, it's likely that you're not getting enough sleep.

A variety of factors can cause poor sleep, including health conditions such as sleep apnoea. But in most cases, it's due to bad sleeping habits. You might want to keep a sleep diary to give you some insights into your current sleeping patterns or use a Fitbit/Smart watch/Sleep app (Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock seems to get good reviews). Sleep is made up of 5 stages.

Stage 1 is very light sleep which occurs when we first fall asleep. As you go into stages 2 and 3 your sleep gets deeper. By stage 4 you are in a very deep sleep. You then go into a stage call Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. This is when most of your dreams occur. Once REM is over you go back into stage 1 sleep. You go through this cycle 4 or 5 times each night. A lack of REM and deep sleep can badly affect you during the day.

Some sleep facts and tips:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. We are biologically designed to sleep when it is dark and be active when its light. The closer you align with these patterns the better you will function. You can make up for some sleep debt at weekends but doing so tends to disrupt your circadian rhythms and interfere with your regular sleep pattern.
  • Insufficient or poor-quality sleep has been correlated with an increased likelihood of obesity, hypertension and depression. Fewer than 6 hours sleep a night or more than 9 hours nearly doubles the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
  • Never lie in bed awake for more than 20-30 minutes. If you haven't fallen asleep, get up, go to a different room, keep the lighting low and read or do something distracting until you feel sleepy again. If you have a lot on your mind write down what you are worrying about. Attempting to solve problems at 3am will more likely lead to increased anxiety than to good answers.
  • Keep a notebook by your bed. If you tend to wake up thinking of ideas or solutions to problems, try to make a note of them and then go back to sleep. The mere act of 'parking' the issue will help your subconscious to let go of it and allow you to return to sleep much quicker than if you just try to forget.
  • Avoid eating late - especially large meals and spicy foods. Lying down makes heartburn worse and may interfere with falling asleep. Too many liquids including water make it more likely that you will wake up during the night.

Is it time for you to take a 'Fit to Lead' audit?

Simply see how you are doing against the 3 steps above. Even small shifts in your habits can have a big impact on your ability to function at your best. Encourage your colleagues to assess themselves too - together we can ensure that our organisations are led by agile-minded, high functioning leaders who are able to find balance and therefore lead with excellence. Think about your working environment too - we have implemented a variety of things to support wellbeing at Primeast and continue to make changes that are having a positive effect.

At Primeast we support organisations in creating outstanding workplaces. Our work includes partnering with specialist organisations like Headtorch, which means we can provide an integrated approach to helping organisations in Developing Leadership Resilience, whether it's a one-off workshop or extended, customised programme. Get in touch with me or speak to anyone of our team to find out more about how we can help you by calling +44 (0)1423 531083.

About the Author

Sarah Cave

Sarah Cave is a Director of Primeast and Head of Leadership. She is a development professional who is passionate about learning and performance improvement.

A leadership specialist, she believes that great leaders have both an academic understanding of leadership models and theory and the ability to breathe life into these within their organisations. Her pragmatic style suits both complicated problems and complex people.

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