Stress and Renewal . . . and What You Can Do About It

min read

Perhaps because it's spring, the topic of renewal seems to be everywhere (or at least I've been thinking a lot about renewal lately). The flip side of renewal when it comes to work is, of course, stress. Stress is pervasive in our lives, especially if you are a new manager or leader (or even if you are a seasoned one) struggling to figure out your new responsibilities and position in the organization while putting out fires almost constantly (or at least it seems that way). There's even a term for this—"power stress."1 Power stress is a unique type of stress associated with being a leader. Today's IT leaders and managers are faced with complex decisions and communication requirements often carried out under conditions of constant uncertainty. Choices that have to be made are rarely crystal clear in today's environment. Couple that with the fact that—cliché or not—it really is lonely at the top. People are looking to you for answers and direction while, simultaneously, you find that you are often isolated from genuine relationships and honest information flow due to your position of authority. Put that all together and you have a recipe for power stress.

What Causes Power Stress?

Leaders and managers by virtue of their job titles exercise power and influence others in order to effect change. In doing so they:

  • Are responsible for make critical decisions often with conflicting and complex data
  • Exert influence over others for whom they often have little or no authority
  • Feel the pressure to continually achieve results regardless of circumstances
  • Are held responsible for uncontrollable events
  • Lack realistic and authentic feedback from others
  • Constantly fight fires, solve problems, deal with competing interests, and contend with crises
  • Are more visible to stakeholders and customers
  • Are subject to unrelenting evaluation from peers, customers, and even boards
  • Are required to exercise constant self-control
  • Must place the good of the organization above personal needs and sometimes have to "take one for the team"

Even superbosses, let alone really good leaders, would find it impossible to juggle all of this while continuing to hold on to the values, ambitions, and motivation that got them to their positions in the first place. Occasional episodes of power stress can spiral into chronic power stress if the pressure is relentless. Many leaders and managers who sacrifice themselves continuously to their jobs become demoralized under these constant conditions; others totally burn out.

Does This Describe You?

If you answer "yes" to several of the following questions, you may be in a "cycle of sacrifice."2 Are you:

  • Working harder with fewer results?
  • Working later (either at home or at the office) or starting earlier each day? (Technology facilitates that feeling that you constantly have to be "on" — available, connected, and responsive.)
  • Feeling tired, even when you get up in the morning? Waking up in the middle of the night with your mind racing, tossing and turning until the alarm goes off?
  • Finding less time (or no time) for things that used to be enjoyable? Rarely feeling relaxed?
  • Feeling numb or, conversely, reacting to situations with inappropriately strong emotions (e.g., you've become the Incredible Hulk and it's not Halloween)?
  • Not caring what you eat or whether you are eating too much or too little? (My stress food of choice is ice cream and lots of it.)
  • Not exercising as much as you used to?
  • Frequently thinking about how to "escape" your current situation or feeling doomed to your current one? (I used to think at one point in my working life — only seventeen more years until retirement.)
  • Feeling as if no one can understand how much work you have or what's on your shoulders?
  • Feeling too overwhelmed to seek out new experiences, ideas, or ways of doing things?
  • Finding that you can't remember the last time you had a meaningful conversation with a good friend or family member?
  • You're not smiling and laughing with others the way you used to? (That's always been a prime indicator for me.)

This cycle of sacrifice and power stress is all too real for many leaders and managers, and its chronic activation can push any of us to our tipping point. Each of us experiences stress in different ways, but we all have our limits, and when we stretch these too far we experience some combination of physical, mental, and behavioral symptoms that intensify as our stress levels rise. This sacrifice cycle carries significant consequences, including losing touch with your core values, depression, burnout, higher risk of stroke or heart attack, and decreased immune system functioning. BTW, do you catch every single cold that's out there?

Power stress is a condition faced by most people in leadership positions. Yet, stress has always been a part of every leader's reality and it always will be. Boyatzis and McKee point out that it's not stress per se, but too little recovery time that is the real culprit. Many good leaders fail to recognize and manage the cycle of sacrifice and renewal that must be regulated in order to remain effective and positive leaders. Sacrificing yourself to your job is not the key to successful and sustainable leadership — not for yourself, not for your team, not for your organization.

What to Do?

Exceptional leaders make deliberate efforts to step away from harmful patterns to renew themselves. You'll know these leaders and managers when you see them. They're able to manage unending crises and chronic stress without anger, fear, or exhaustion. They don't lash out or respond in defensive ways, plus they rise to challenges and obstacles by finding opportunities and even creative responses. They can motivate themselves and others by focusing on possibilities rather than roadblocks. And while realistic, they are always optimistic about the situation whether now or in the future. These are the people that we want to work for and emulate because they create an exciting organizational culture by creating positive relationships. And yet, they too experience power stress. What differentiates them, however, is their awareness that ignoring their own needs despite their heavy responsibilities and self sacrifice is too great a price to pay that could lead to devastating results both for their own health and career and for their organization.

Good managers and leaders work hard to be effective, but how do they sustain it once they've achieved it so as not to become the victim of power stress? To reverse the slide into the sacrifice syndrome and to remain energized, effective leaders go through a process of renewal. They understand how important this renewal cycle is even if they don't say it. The work done by Boyatzis and McKee shows that the renewal cycle actually invokes psychological and physiological changes that enable leaders to counter the effects of chronic stress and sacrifice.

Pathways to Renewal

Some potential pathways to renewal include the following:

  • Practice mindfulness — If our minds are buzzing with our endless to-do lists and major projects that aren't on deadline, it's difficult to find that mental space to be mindful, but it can be learned. Mindfulness is a combination of reflection and practice. Find something that works for you, whether it's meditation, walking or running in natural surroundings, gardening, cooking, or anything else that appeals to you. I find swimming laps to be very meditative as well as good physical exercise.
  • Be hopeful — What are your dreams and aspirations? Hope enables us to envision a future can be attainable and it also helps move us toward our vision. And, it's okay when our dreams change and shift over time, but it's important to have them and to articulate them.
  • Develop social and physical outlets — As a leader you're often working in isolation, so be sure to balance this with positive social interactions — whether at work or outside of the office. I once joined the organization's softball team. I was a terrible player, but I valued the camaraderie, and it was good fun.
  • Find reasons to laugh — You have to find reasons to laugh at work. During a sustained stressful time at one point in my career, my group held together and actually thrived because we laughed a lot. It's an easy way to let off steam and it helps to form solid bonds, especially during the tough times.
  • Use your network — Have a good you-know-what session with a colleague. Letting off steam, in private with a trusted person, is a good way to manage stress.

The benefits of renewal both in the present and over time help decrease stress levels, leading to relaxation as well as other physiological benefits, including a stronger immune system, improved mood and increased personal satisfaction, and increased effectiveness. To counter power stress, most of us need to change how we manage ourselves and learn new behaviors. Being successful, whether in our professional or personal life, requires flexible intellectual, emotional, and social responses rather than instinctive physical reactions.

Thinking, wishing, and hoping that stress will go away isn't realistic (and is probably even stress producing). Learning how to manage stress through a conscious process of renewal is important not only for your personal well-being but also for the people you lead. Be the change agent for yourself and for your team. Start now.


  1. Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee, Resonant Leadership (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2005), 7.
  2. Ibid.

Joan F. Cheverie is director of professional development for EDUCAUSE.

© 2016 Joan F. Cheverie. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.