Stress. A word that evokes a range of emotions and maybe a strong physical response.
When you think of stress, what do you notice? Thoughts? Sensations in the body? Emotions? Your experience with stress is unique. It depends on your relationship with it, and the type of stress.
So, what role does stress play in our lives? In our leadership?
How can we reframe it from "the thing that causes burnout," to "the thing that boosts motivation, memory, energy, and performance?"
As a female leader since 2015, I struggled with stress and burnout for years, but I've learned how to help me grow personally and as a leader at remote companies. In this article, we'll delve into:
What stress is and why it's critical to preventing burnout.
How stress affects your mind, body, and leadership.
Where work-related stress comes from for female leaders.
How to care for day-to-day stress at work.
Breathwork to reset your nervous system.
How to relieve stress in the long term.
Table of contents for Stress relief at work
Why Stress Relief Is Key to Preventing Burnout
Before we get into the juicy details of how to use stress, we need to understand it.
There are two types of stress: eustress and distress. Eustress is the "good stress" that you might experience before an important presentation, starting a new job, or launching a new project. It benefits your well-being, motivation, energy, and performance in the short term. That said, you still need recovery time from eustress.
Distress is the "bad stress," that can show up as acute or chronic stress. Acute stress triggers the body's stress response due to surprises needing a quick response. For female leaders, this happens throughout the day, especially when it comes to decision-making. Chronic stress comes from repeated stressors over months or years and leads to burnout. Things like excessive workloads, structural injustice, and organizational barriers are contributors.
Let's take a look at how stress shows up in the body and mind, by each type of stress.
Stress Signs: Impact on the Body
Stress in the body shows up differently, depending on the type of stress. Here are some top signs and effects you might notice in the body:
Signs of Eustress in the body:
Increased heart rate and faster, shallower breathing
Release of the hormone oxytocin which reduces blood pressure and cortisol levels
... and there is no sense of threat or fear.
Signs of Acute Stress in the body:
Quickened breathing and increased heart rate
Higher blood pressure
Tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing
... and there is an underlying sense of threat or fear.
Signs of Chronic Stress in the body:
Aches and pains
Insomnia and sleepiness
Low energy or fatigue
Elevated cortisol and adrenaline for prolonged periods
Hormonal imbalance leading to irregular menstrual cycles, gastrointestinal issues, or decreased libido, to name a few
Lower immune function
Stress Signs: Impact on the Mind
Stress can have a profound impact on the mind, affecting your body and overall well-being. Here are the top signs and effects of stress on the mind:
Signs of Eustress in the Mind:
Feeling alive, excited, and motivated
Optimism that inspires you to overcome challenges
Feeling more connected to your life purpose or meaning
Improved focus and memory
Signs of Acute Stress in the Mind:
Feeling uncomfortable or overwhelmed
Unable to regulate emotions
Mental exhaustion and lower productivity from overanalyzing situations
Signs of Chronic Stress in the Mind:
View situations from a negative perspective
Low self-esteem and self-trust
Unfocused or cloudy thinking
Anxiety and depression
... a result of accumulated acute stress over weeks or months.
Stress Signs: Impact on Leadership
Let's put this out there—the impact of stress on your mental and physical wellbeing is interconnected with your ability to lead from your unique Personal Power. How can you lead effectively—or really show up in life—if you're coming from a place of being depleted?
When you're under repeated stress, it limits your ability to make good decisions, communicate effectively, and lead your team. It can decrease your job satisfaction, productivity, clarity, and self-trust. It disconnects you from your Higher Self. As a result, business goals may suffer, team trust can begin to break down, and you feel it in every sense of your being.
Wow, that's a lot of pressure! Reading this may only increase your current stress levels, but it's not meant to. Understanding how stress affects you—so you can address stress holistically—is what's important.
I'm here to inspire you to make the change you need so you can move from depletion to abundance.
Abundance in permission. Permission to take time to recover.
Abundance in clarity. Clarity gained through recovery.
Abundance in energetic alignment. Energetic alignment in how you live and lead.
Ready to learn how? Let's talk about what contributes to your stress as an ambitious female leader, and how you can show up differently.
How to Recover from Work Stress, Using Science
Stress has become synonymous with work, with up to 61% of workers being on the edge of stress-related burnout at any given time. And when we're stressed—needing time for recovery—the most common behavior is to lean into the negative cycle. Working longer hours, taking fewer breaks, eating unhealthy, depleting our energy, and then repeating the cycle.
This is why research-backed stress relief practices are more important than ever. And even more important for female leaders in remote companies, who often face additional pressures and responsibilities. Tell me more, you say...
What Are the Top Reasons for Stress at Work?
Stress at work is a shared experience. We can all relate. It comes from factors like:
Bad work environments,
Excessive workloads with unrealistic expectations and tight deadlines,
Misalignment between team members and job expectations,
Performance anxiety, and
Company culture defined by a lack of psychological safety, support, and organizational injustices and barriers.
But what has the research taught us when it comes to stress in female leaders?
91% of female executives have felt a surge of 'exponential stress' in the workplace, according to KPMG's 2023 Women's Leadership Summit report.
70% attributed higher stress due to increased workloads and expectations.
58% reported added responsibilities stemming from the need to help manage their teams’ mental health and wellness on top of their own.
McKinsey & Company's 2023 Women in the Workplace report shows that women experience microaggressions at a higher rate than men, causing acute stress. Example microggressions include being interrupted or spoken over, hearing comments on their emotional state, their judgment being questioned, others getting credit for their idea, and being criticized for their demeanor.
Women who experience microaggressions and self-shield are 4.2x more likely to almost always feel burned out.
So, what does this mean for you?
The bigger systemic issues aren't going to change overnight. That much we know. But, you can choose to show up differently.
When you choose to show up differently—embodying your unique Personal Power—you're a part of the change. The movement towards a new generation of leadership. Inspiring others to show up differently, too.
So, how can you show up differently and be boldly unbounded in stress? Start by focusing on what you can control. Caring for your day-to-day stressors and long-term work-related stressors.
6 Ways to Care for Day-to-Day Stress at Work
Infusing stress relief practices into your workday can reduce your stress levels, improve your job satisfaction, and enhance your quality of life. Let's dive in and discover six simple, yet effective ways to care for yourself amidst the challenges of female leadership.
Create (and Stick to) Pre-Work and End-of-Day Rituals
Pre-work and end-of-day rituals can be an amazing strategy for managing workplace stress. I live by them! They help you set boundaries and start your workday with intention, so you can mindfully respond to stress, get into your work groove, and mentally end your workday. What do they look like?
A pre-work ritual sets the tone for the day ahead and it can be as little as 5-10 minutes up to 1-2 hours. Add it to your work calendar. Having a consistent morning routine enables you to ease into your workday, minimizing the feeling of being rushed or overwhelmed. Here are ideas to help you create your pre-work ritual:
Exercise for 30 minutes. Raise your heart rate, get outside (if you can), and sweat.
Practice mindfulness for 5-10 minutes. This could include meditation, mindful movement (it could be part of your exercise), or a guided visualization.
Free Journal. Take 5-10 minutes to write any and everything that comes to mind. No filtering.
Do Your Daily Planning. Identify your #1 priority for the day, associated tasks, and put them in your calendar. Your #1 priority should be impact-focused, paired with buffer time for unexpected items that come up throughout the day. Do this BEFORE you open your email or Slack.
Similarly, the end-of-day ritual helps you transition from work mode to your personal life, so you can be fully present with your friends, family, and yourself. You can:
Reflect on your accomplishments for the day. Keep a notion page, Google doc, notebook where you write down your accomplishments. This reinforces your sense of self-trust and can act as evidence when you're working toward a promotion.
Plan for tomorrow. Your brain will continue to work if you have mental lists in the background. Write them down, prioritize them, and delegate as needed, so you can free your mental space and reenergize.
Do breathwork. Stressful day? Reset your nervous system so you can leave work at work. Keep reading for 3 breathwork practices.
Plan for Impact First
A majority of stress can come from unsustainable workloads, for you and your team. Your ability to align your team's strategy with business goals, and prioritize what needs to happen first are key. And it starts with impact. Check impact at regular intervals to make sure you're focused on delivering high-impact value.
If you're struggling to focus on impact first, ask yourself (and your team) these questions:
What's the desired outcome of [priority]?
How confident are you in [priority] achieving the desired outcome?
What data supports the need for [priority]?
What happens if you don't do [priority]? Could another priority drive higher impact? There are always tradeoffs.
How can you measure the impact of [priority]?
How critical is [priority] to achieving business goals? Which business goal does [priority] link to?
What does senior leadership care about? Why? How does the [priority] connect? When you know senior leadership's motivators and connect them to your priorities, they naturally become your champions.
Pro Tip: When creating the People roadmap, we used the RICE framework to get crystal clear on the reach, impact, confidence, and effort for every initiative and project.
Minimize Context Switching
You will context switch. It's part of being a leader. But, you can limit how much context-switching you do throughout the day.
Why? Studies have found that it can take 23 minutes to regain focus after a distraction. Imagine if you context switch just 3 times in a day—that's over an hour lost. On top of that, context switching can:
Increase the likelihood of making unnecessary mistakes.
Reduce productivity and slow down others who are dependent on you.
Add stress, annoyance, frustration, and job strain.
Here's how you can reduce context switching:
Batch similar tasks together, like responding to emails and attending meetings.
Create deep work time with one focus area.
Close Slack, email, etc. when you're doing focus work and let people know in advance so they're not blocked while you're offline.
Automate any repetitive tasks that could be easily automated.
Delegate tasks that you don't need to do. Use those tasks as career development opportunities for your team.
Practice Mindfulness at Work
Practicing mindfulness at work offers numerous benefits for stress relief, improved mental health, and overall well-being. Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present and aware in the present moment, without judgment. It can help individuals develop a greater sense of calmness, clarity, and focus.
Here are a few ways you can add mindfulness to the workday:
Declutter your workspace before you start work. It can help set the tone for mindfulness throughout the workday. Read the article, “The Simple Guide to a Clutter-Free Desk,” to learn more. I do this at the end of every workday.
Focus on your work's purpose beyond the paycheck. Why do you do the work that you do? To provide for your family? To feel a sense of accomplishment? To contribute to something bigger? Write down your work purpose and to approach it with love, no matter how challenging it might be.
Take mindful breaks throughout the day—even if they're 30 seconds. Do deep breathing exercises, body scans, a short walk, or other stress relief activities to calm the mind and body.
Approach each activity with full attention and awareness. Focus on one task at a time, prioritizing quality over quantity. Get into your flow state.
Limit your distractions. Distractions are the opposite of mindfulness. This could mean putting your phone on 'do not disturb,' closing tabs in your browser, closing email/Slack, or removing physical clutter that can be a visual distraction.
Take Breaks and Breathe for Stress Relief at Work
Taking regular breaks reduces stress. Microsoft's research found that breaks between meetings allow the brain to reset and reduce the buildup of cumulative stress across meetings.
Squeezing in an extra 1, 2, 5, or 10 minutes of work between meetings only contributes to higher cumulative stress. The goal? Use breaks to take your mind off work-related topics and focus on something relaxing.
It will help you recenter and feel a sense of calm and clarity. Here are five ideas:
Do a 7-minute workout
Give your furry friend some love 🐈 🐕 🐇 🦙 🦦
Laugh with your child
Have a mindful cup of tea or coffee
Bonus: Here are my favorite breathwork practices you can try during your next break:
Diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing, is a simple technique. You inhale deeply through the nose, allowing the belly to expand, and exhale slowly through the mouth. That's it. You can do it for 30 seconds or 30 minutes.
The benefits? It activates the body's relaxation response, or parasympathetic nervous system, reducing stress hormones, alleviating tension, and increasing your oxygen intake.
I love, love, live this technique! It simultaneously recenters me and connects me to my unique Personal Power. Plus, you get to sound like a lion roaring. 🦁 And it reminds me of the Boss Ass Bitch, Rebecca Welton 💗, from Ted Lasso.
Following these steps can guide you through the practice:
Find a space where you can sit upright with your back straight and your feet planted on the floor. I also do this practice in Goddess pose. Not familiar with the pose? Learn how with my fave, Yoga with Adriene.
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths to settle into a relaxed state.
Inhale deeply through your nose, filling your lungs with air.
Exhale forcefully, open your mouth wide and stick out your tongue as far as possible, while simultaneously making a loud "haaaa" sound. Imagine releasing all the tension and stress in your body with this exhale.
Allow your breath to naturally return to normal and repeat the exercise two or three more times.
The benefits? It helps:
Release tension in the face, neck, jaw, and shoulders.
Stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system in the body, reducing stress hormone levels and lowering blood pressure.
The 'roar' and physical release can help let go of negative emotions and feel your power!
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is another simple practice where you manipulate the breath by alternating between the left and right nostrils. Follow these steps:
Find a comfortable seated position with a straight spine. Rest your left hand on your lap.
Gently close your right nostril using your right thumb, while keeping your left nostril open.
Take a deep inhale through your left nostril, filling your lungs completely.
Close your left nostril using your right ring finger, and exhale smoothly and fully through your right nostril.
Inhale through your right nostril, then close it with your right thumb.
Release your ring finger from your left nostril, and exhale through the left nostril.
Repeat steps 2-6 for 5 minutes, if possible.
The benefits? It balances the left and right hemispheres of the brain, reduces stress levels, slows down the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system in the body.
Move Your Body
Peeling yourself out of bed, away from your desk, off of the couch can be hard enough in itself. But peel away! Movement is an excellent stress relief activity. Here three ideas for stress relief at work:
Stretch at your desk: Take regular breaks to stretch out your muscles. This can help release tension and increase blood flow, promoting relaxation and reducing stress levels.
Take a walk: Instead of staying seated, use your breaks as an opportunity to go for a brisk walk. Walking not only gets your body moving but also helps clear your mind and rejuvenate your energy levels. You can have walking 1:1s, too.
Do quick exercises: Incorporate short bursts of exercise into your work day. Engage in simple exercises like squats, lunges, or quick bodyweight exercises. These movements can help improve blood circulation and release endorphins, which can elevate your mood and reduce stress.
Long-term, movement can undo the negative effects of prolonged sitting and promote better physical, mental, and emotional health. Regular movement contributes to better cardiovascular health and stronger immune function. It also boosts your mood and energy levels, helping you lead with more clarity, calm, and mindful productivity.
Remember, every little bit helps. If you only have five minutes, five minutes are better than zero.
Not sure where to start? Get your free Boldly Unbounded Blueprint to understand where you are today and gain clarity for next steps.
5 Ways to Relieve Stress at Work in the Long-term
The six ways to care for day-to-day stressors support stress relief long-term, but they're not enough. The long-term strategies change how you fundamentally show up in life and leadership, proactively reducing stress, rather than just treating the symptoms.
Listen to Your Body
Your body is incredibly intelligent and it speaks to you. ALL. THE. TIME. Just listen to it.
By paying attention to physical cues and sensations, like tension, fatigue, or shallow breathing, you can gain a deeper understanding of what triggers stress, your stress levels, and how to relieve stress.
How does it work? When you experience stress, the body responds with tension. The more stress, the more tension. The more tension, the more rigid the body becomes. And over time, a tense, rigid body becomes your default state.
Not sure if you're holding tension? Close your eyes and scan you body from head to toe. Notice if you're holding in these areas:
The neck and shoulders
The hips and pelvic floor
The lower back
The lungs and breath
Pro tip: Pay special attention to the body during stressful parts of your workday. Get to know where you hold your stress and dedicate time daily to releasing it with a practice that works for you. It could be mindfulness meditation, movement, breathwork, or journalling, to name a few.
Over time, listening to the body will become second nature and you can address the root causes of stress.
Change Your Relationship with Stress
Stress is often seen as something negative we carry throughout our lives. You may think of tension, worry, and discomfort when it comes to stress. But, stress is a natural response to difficult situations.
The body is designed to react to stress to protect you and help you perform at your best (i.e., run away from a saber-toothed tiger). The challenge is the brain can't tell the difference between a saber-toothed tiger and an intense meeting. So, what would happen if you changed your relationship with stress?
What if you saw it as a challenge that motivates you, rather than something that strains, drains, and overwhelms you? That small shift in perspective can turn 'bad stress' into 'good stress.' All in moderation (more on that later).
The first step is to reframe your mindset. When you notice negative thoughts forming with mindful thought-spotting, pause. Acknowledge the thought and related emotions, offer yourself compassion, and then reframe it. Remind yourself that it's a catalyst for growth.
For example, let's say you've got an important presentation coming up. You notice your heartbeat quickening, shallow breathing, tension in your jaw, and sweaty palms.
Acknowledge the emotion. "I feel nervous. Afraid of failing."
Offer self-compassion. Place your hands on your heart. "I see you. It's normal to feel nervous before a big presentation. And you don't need to be perfect. Remember, you're not alone. Many leaders feel this way before a presentation."
Then reframe. "It's good that you're nervous before the presentation. It means you care deeply. It's an amazing opportunity to speak your voice and show the impact you're making at the company. You've put in the effort. You've got this!"
Energetically Align with Your Values
When you're out of alignment with your values, you'll experience more stress. Why? Because you're going against your energetic current.
Think of it like a river. When you're in alignment with your values, you flow with the current, moving around rocks and obstacles with ease. Your energy is constant. Calm.
When you act in contradiction with your values, you're going upstream. Against the current. And what happens? Strain, drain, and depletion. Clinging to obstacles because you're too tired to continue and you can't lose the ground you've fought to gain.
Which option sounds better to you?
I really hope you picked the first one. 😂
So, get clear. Crystal clear on your values. What do they look like in practice? How are they supported at your company? How do they align with the company values? Where might they be in conflict? What steps can you take to move into greater alignment?
Set Clear Boundaries
Setting (and maintaining) boundaries are essential in work and life for two reasons:
They limit how much stress you expose yourself to (i.e., moderating your stressors) so you have recovery time.
They are an act of self-care. If you don't prioritize your wellbeing, no one else will.
Explore different strategies to set clear boundaries for yourself.
Let Go of Control
Wow, this one is a doozy, but one of the most freeing practices. Why? Because the need for control is often rooted in a fear of failure or a desire for perfection. Or both.
If you try to control your work and strive for perfection, you impose immense pressure on yourself. It also limits your ability to adapt to change and collaborate effectively with others. That repetitive pressure and need for control lead to increased stress levels, anxiety, and even burnout.
Let's be clear: letting go of control related to perfectionism doesn't mean that you have to compromise on the quality of your work. It means that you free yourself from unrealistic expectations. The results?
And you'll do better work. Shift your focus to progress instead of perfection. Acknowledge mistakes and setbacks are part of the evolution of growth. Practice self-compassion and remind yourself that you are doing the best you can with the resources you have. It's okay if don't always meet your incredibly high standards.
What else? Learn to trust others—that's why you hired them. Delegate tasks that you don't need to own. Ask for help. Use it as an opportunity to cultivate a culture of collaboration, trust, and autonomy. Your team will do better work as a result.
Ready to be Boldly Unbounded in Stress?
Let yourself reconnect with who you really are.
Let go of the stress. The control. The perfectionism.
You are enough. Just as you are.
You are already a Boss Ass Bitch (...in the words of Rebecca Welton. Yes, I love her).
Letting go is a powerful way to move into your unique Personal Power. To lead confidently without the burnout. And I can help you get there with private leadership coaching.
Are you ready to say 'yes' to yourself? To move up into your unique Personal Power and be a Boss Ass Bitch?