Gone are the days when managers used to pose with cigars, proudly sporting their obesity while trying to drown their apparent stress with a shot of good cognac only to succumb to the then infamous “manager disease” in the process. The profession has since progressed: instead of fatty steaks and heavy red wine they now rely on healthy meals and participating in marathon runs.
Health awareness has increased – but so have stress levels! Constant availability, a jetset lifestyle, and e-mail terror were unknown concepts to our ancestors. Executives today have a lot more to deal with than in the past; meanwhile, the opportunity to plan in the long term decreases and business trajectories are becoming increasingly insecure, which further increases stress.
Most managers deal with this stress through excessive practice of sports and paying increased attention to their physical fitness. It is believed, for example, that regular running or weight training relieves stress hormones, and that is definitely beneficial.
But beneficial as it may be – it is in fact a step taken too late! Because the stress damage has already been done and now they try to get rid of the impending negative consequences. The fact that sports and fitness interventions are often tried too late is demonstrated by the increasing numbers of managers suffering from mental illnesses such as depression, addiction susceptibility and burnout. Stress levels have increased to a point where mere physical interventions are no longer sufficient.
We do not want to discuss the issue that it would probably be adequate to question the current conditions of working life and then adjust them accordingly to install a more humane system. As desirable as such a change would be – the idea seems to be fairly utopian at the moment, and in any case it is not in our hands. However, as long as working conditions remain the way they are now, it’s helpful to show people ways they can cope with the requirements of their everyday life.
At the employee level, meditation techniques such as MBSR receive increasingly more attention. It has been shown that mental fitness, in addition to physical health, plays a key role in order to stay healthy in our current working environment. The inner system must be allowed to come down and rest at regular intervals. If our inner system is forced to run at full throttle continuously through the diverse requirements of a working life, these necessary resting periods become increasingly harder to achieve. For example, if an individual develops sleeping difficulties, he will already be stressed at the beginning of his work day. Methods like MBSR help to achieve inner peace and are consequently an important step towards mental fitness.
Even better results can be achieved if we tackle our own internal stressors. The way and intensity we experience stress depends largely on individual internal conditions. There are only a few stress factors that evoke similar reactions in most people – such as life-threatening situations or exposure to loud noise; most people react in highly individual ways to other stressful situations. Whether extreme labor requirements are associated with stress for a given person depends on whether internal alarms are triggered by external conditions. Internal alarms always evoke stress.
This state of internal alarm can also affect highly successful executives. In coaching, we regularly hear from successful managers who are suffering from internal alarms and therefore from high levels of stress – although they could handle the situation at hand significantly easier if the respective internal alarm would not be triggered. It is not the situation as such which poses a threat to serenity, but the internal alarms, which trigger the release of stress hormones. Freed from inner alarms, we can deal with difficult requirements and situations in an objective and calm manner.
For this reason, it may also be very helpful for successful leaders to employ techniques like MBSR. This method of mindfulness meditation is incomparably effective, in my opinion, in terms of offering relief from the daily stress while at the same time investing a fraction of your day to employ Introvision as a means to reduce inner stressors.
To care about your mental health and not to rely on physical activity alone is also useful in other ways: the number of people suffering from burnout while being physically active is on the rise. In light of the fact that coming back from burnout usually takes several months or even years, a couple of minutes of meditation seem to be time well spent in comparison. Furthermore, to rid yourself of internal alarms not only shows a positive impact in the workplace, but also in private life. Stress tends to spread to the environment of the individual in question: stressed-out executives will stress out their employees, and they will in turn put stress on their families. This results in a downward spiral of stress, which in and of itself is not necessitated by the circumstances. You can make life a lot easier for yourself by gaining some serenity and inner calm. That’s what I call mental fitness!