Workplace Stress Impacts Leaders In Many Ways
The effects of constant and chronic stress are well known.
In his book The Happiness Handbook, Dr. David Lee cites Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biological sciences and an authority on stress at Stanford University, in explaining how stress impacts our bodies. “In fight-or-flight mode, your body turns off all the long-term building and repair projects,” explains Sapolsky. “Constant high levels of cortisol take your body’s eye off the ball. Memory and accuracy are both impaired. Patrols for invaders aren’t sent out, you tire more easily, you become depressed and reproduction gets downgraded.”
Interestingly, our bodies are so wired and attuned to stress, because it is our internal mechanism for keeping us safe, that our systems do not differentiate between real and imagined stress triggers. That is why when we are worrying about a future event, or ruminating excessively about something from the past, our bodies produce the same hormones like adrenal cortisol that they would if we were facing an actual physical threat such as a mugging scenario.
Thus, even though no physical or other real-life stress-inducing factors are present, your body will produce these hormones when you are feeling anxious or feeling fearful about a decision you need to make or an action you need to take. The secretion of these “fight or flight” hormones into your blood in turn trigger secretions in the brain not conducive to clear-headed thinking, judgment, and decision making.
Inflammation is the defensive response of the body’s immune system to threats such as an infection or a strained muscle. Scientists now know that stress can also cause an increase of inflammation within the body, much like an infection or a turned ankle. This inflammatory response to stress also impacts how the brain functions cognitively and how it regulates emotional response.
There are other ways that stress impacts our bodies, many of which are warning signs of intense or prolonged periods of stress. These include bad breath, sore or bleeding gums, sore and tense muscles, heavy breathing through the mouth, and an appetite that is never fully satisfied. Weirdly, stress can also make you not want to eat at all (we each react to stress in our own ways). Similarly, both diarrhea and constipation can result from stress.
In addition, having adrenal cortisol coursing through the body in response to stress depresses the immune system. This can lead to feelings of being burnt out and exhausted, which in turns leads to further stress. To say the least, stress is a very nasty cycle impacting our bodies, brains, emotions, and thoughts.
Stress also tends to negatively impact our sleep cycles. One might think that feeling burned out and exhausted would result in a greater propensity for sleep. And sometimes it does, for a few days. Unfortunately, this type of sleep often leaves us more lethargic and de-energized than before, which again induces more stress. As above, it is a vicious cycle.
But the most common impact of stress on quality sleep is insomnia, a condition that includes trouble getting to sleep and/or staying asleep. Stress can hinder your ability to wind down and get to sleep. It can also cause a series of racing thoughts that prevents your mind from shutting down and granting you the deep sleep you so rightly deserve. To say the least, the connection between sleep and stress is a complicated and highly integrated relationship.
As we shared in an earlier blog on How Stress Impacts the Workplace, numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated precariously over the past few decades.
Thus, this is an issue that leaders need to become increasingly concerned about, not only for their own health and decision-making capabilities, but for the general health and wellness of their employees.
This article is partially excerpted from my award-winning book Better Decisions Better Thinking Better Outcomes: How to go from Mind Full to Mindful Leadership, available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. The book is the recipient of a Silver Award from the Nonfiction Authors Association for bringing “a comprehensive plan of action for improving life through recognizing decision-making patterns that don’t serve us well, don’t enrich our lives, and don’t bring us to our goals and dreams.”