Battling Boardroom Stress

Battling Boardroom Stress

Domini Stuart believes managing stress effectively is a matter of good governance for directors.

Most directors have experienced the pressure of a senior executive role – but that doesn’t mean they’re automatically prepared for the pressures of the boardroom.

“Executives must be totally focused on setting clear strategic and operational goals and meeting objectives and targets,” says Virginia Mansell, executive director of leadership development firm Stephenson Mansell. “Nowadays, as was underlined by the Centro judgement, directors must pay attention to the detail and implementation of strategy. However, staying across the broader issues is equally important and the challenge for directors, particularly those fresh out of corporate, is to understand the different requirements and not get drawn into the management detail. This change in focus and method of working can give rise to stress.”

The transition can also present a psychological challenge.

“Senior executives’ identities are formed in the corporate social world where their self-esteem might be built on their status and power,” continues Mansell. “From here they must make the change to being one of a group of equals, able to make a contribution via an opinion and influence but no longer able to be the ultimate authority.”


Directors who are still employed as executives, or those who sit on a number of boards, must manage heavy – and sometimes conflicting – demands on their time.

“They’re facing increased demands, duties and responsibilities,” says Dr John Harte FAICD, Principal of Integrity Governance. “24/7 technology has enabled better communication but it has also created an environment where there’s often no clear distinction between personal and professional time. This can lead to blurring of boundaries and a sense that everyone is always on call – not necessarily a healthy thing for business leaders. The effect of new technologies on productivity and quality of work are still being determined. However, there is plenty of evidence that the ‘connected society’ is having a destructive impact of on personal relationships with the risk of social atrophy as technology reshapes the way we communicate.”

This can be exacerbated by pressures outside of the workplace.

“The responsibility of overseeing a company’s financial position and strategy carries significant stress, but the current economic environment is placing directors under intensified pressure to manage their personal finances prudently as well,” says Dr Amanda Rischbieth GAICD, Chief Executive of the Heart Foundation SA and an experienced company director. “Furthermore, parents in the workforce may be caring for members of their extended families, such as aging parents, as well as their children.

“Directors, like many others in our community, are juggling many balls and trying to keep them all in the air. If we think of those balls as being made of rubber, it’s not that bad if one or two fall – they will bounce and roll into a corner and you can pick them up later. But two of the balls are glass; they won’t bounce and they’re highly likely to break and be damaged. These are your family and your health, and they both require particular care.”

Directors who have left the corporate world behind could be faced with a different set of challenges.

“A poorly-planned move from a full-time executive career to a part-time board role can cause stress and a sense of dislocation – and, again, this is particularly acute where the individual has been defined by his or her executive role,” says Harte. “The transition exposes the reality of our relationships, the things we have in common with those closest to us and, if family, friends and loved ones have moved on to different interests, aspirations and expectations, the gap between perception and reality.”

He suggests that the whole family needs a shared view of what life as a director will look like.

“You can’t simply presume that these critical relationships will stay in good shape without nurture and a long-term investment of time and energy,” he continues. “Without the cohesion of shared interests and values, directors who finally have more time for these special people may find they have become strangers and that, as a result, they lack the emotional support of caring, non-work relationships. The happiest transitions from full-time executive to board positions are well planned and reflect the aspirations and values of the family as well as the individual.”


Whatever its cause, the hard-wired response to stress is the so-called ‘fight or flight’ reflex response.

“This was totally appropriate when we were fighting tigers,” says Jane Mara, an author, executive coach and mentor to senior business leaders. “It’s much less appropriate now that the tigers come in different guises, such as the person who cuts you off in traffic or pushes in front of you in a queue. Stress is also created by long term anxiety about job performance, performance generally and issues around governance and compliance. These days, for many people, there’s no respite – no time for your body to replenish itself.”

The Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney has shown that chronic stress causes a build-up in the blood of neuropeptide Y, a hormone which disrupts the immune system. This can result in a higher incidence of minor illnesses, such as colds and flu, and may create vulnerability to more serious problems. But stress isn’t always the enemy.

“All high-achieving people require a healthy amount of stress to help them push forward and achieve their goals,” says Mansell. “Also, different people deal with stress in different ways depending on their personal experience, their level of emotional resilience and even their DNA.”

Those who appear to thrive on pressure may have a natural ability to cope with stress – or, like Tony Stuart, they may have found ways to manage it.

“An executive coach suggested I try yoga,” says Stuart, who is CEO of the NRMA and sits on a number of boards. “I’d never considered it because I thought you’d need to be extremely skinny and flexible but, when I tried it, I realised that it’s something most people can do if they have the right teacher. That was about a year ago and, since then, I’ve been doing it for two or three hours a week.”

Stuart’s teacher, Neera Scott, is principal of Executive Yoga and specialises in working one-on-one with directors and executives.

“Most directors spend a lot of their time sitting down and this places a great deal of stress on the body,” she says. “High impact exercise such as running may not be an ideal antidote to that, particularly when you get into your 50s and 60s. I teach simple postures and very gentle dynamic sequences which give agility to the body and strengthen the muscles that support the joints and the spine.”

Stuart was surprised to find that, as well as building physical strength, yoga can improve mental focus.

“Nine to five went out with our fathers – today’s directors are six am to 11pm people,” he says. “We also need to do a lot of listening, to be adaptable and to stay mentally sharp. That isn’t always easy, particularly in the afternoons when you might have had a long corporate lunch or skipped lunch altogether.

“I find there’s nothing better than breaking the day with an hour’s yoga in my office or doing 10 to 15 minutes of breathing exercises in the office or even in the car before a meeting. It’s as good as two-hour power nap; I find the release of mental energy makes an extraordinary difference.”

While Stuart is happy to talk about yoga, other converts stay quiet in the face of conservative attitudes, cynicism and misunderstanding.

“If you announce that you’re going off to do yoga you’re likely gets a few winks and nudges from your colleagues,” he says. “Or they ask ‘why would you want to stand on your head?’. Well, I don’t stand on my head. They forget that, as with sport, you don’t have to reach an elite level to gain a benefit. I’m the casual jogger of yoga and I’m happy to stay with that.”

Cynicism isn’t the only thing standing between many directors and a more balanced lifestyle.

“We are creatures of habit,” says Harte. “It often takes disruption, sometimes an unpleasant event such as a health scare, a ‘near miss’ relating to someone close to us, the loss of a close friend or the end of a critical relationship to catalyse change.”

In some cases, even this isn’t enough.

“Of every nine people who undergo heart surgery due to poor life style choices only one will actually change that life style,” says Tao de Haas, who is a registered psychotherapist, executive coach and director of Corporate XL. “So what stops people doing what they know they should? The answer lies in our brain. The brain is not all that comfortable with change. When you deviate from a habit or from what is normal for you, the survival part of the brain feels unsettled because it interprets the change as potential danger. As a result, people are motivated to continue with what is familiar and easy.”

It can help if the change is emotionally as well as logically compelling.

“The feelings associated with what you gain need to outweigh the feelings associated with your current state,” continues Haas. “Emotions are far more powerful motivators than ‘shoulds’. For instance, feeling excited about getting into better shape is far more powerful than dreading giving up something like alcohol or starting to exercise. You need to make a firm decision as to what you want to achieve, be committed to that decision and have the courage to deal with some of the initial discomfort.”

For directors, this could be good news.

“Directors are naturally disciplined people,” says Scott. “Often, their EA or PA will book regular yoga session months in advance and, once they’ve made that commitment and it’s in the diary, they stick to it.”


For directors, the most interesting aspect of stress could be its impact on decision-making.

“The human brain evolved over time,” explains Mara. “The first and oldest part is called the reptilian brain and, as the name suggests, it controls basic functions such as satisfying hunger, controlling body temperature and the fight or flight response to possible danger. The second part of the brain to emerge, known as the limbic system, is responsible for mood, memory and hormone control. The cortex and pre-frontal neo-cortex evolved relatively recently and they’re responsible for complex social interactions, advance planning, language and our decision-making.

“When we are under stress or in the grip of strong emotions such as fear or anger, powerful hormones and neuro-transmitters are released which can literally shut down the pre-frontal cortex and block access to the brain’s reasoning ability. There is scientific evidence that sound decision-making requires a relaxed, calm and coherent state of mind.”

This raises the question of whether managing stress could be a matter of good governance.

Directors are entrusted with the future of an organisation and must genuinely believe that they are acting in the best interests of the company at all times. Could we soon see those who have made poor decisions being sued for failing to take reasonable steps to ensure that they had access to their pre-frontal cortex at the time?

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