Identify your limits. Part of making big changes at work is acknowledging your own limitations. If the stress is getting to you and you’re seeing the effects of it, try to zero in on the particular areas in work or business that are contributing to the stress and how they affect you. Last year, I spent several months tracking my work and mental health daily and found that stacking certain tasks, like back-to-back work calls, increased my anxiety and drained my productivity and energy levels.
With all that’s going on in our country, in our economy, in the world, and on social media, it feels like so many of us are under a great deal of stress. We know that chronic stress can be as unhealthy as smoking a quarter of a pack a day. For many of us, our work, our livelihood, is a particular cause of stress. Of course, a bit of stress is just fine, but what are stress management strategies that leaders use to become “Stress-Proof” at work? What are some great tweaks, hacks, and tips that help to reduce or even eliminate stress from work? As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Leanna Lee.
Leanna Lee is a future of work and mental health writer with lived disability and small business experience. She works with small business and international brands to produce authoritative and empathetic thought leadership, editorial content, and content marketing resources. Lee is also a mental health advocate, speaker, and co-founder of Bettermental, a mental health resource for small business owners with a podcast of the same name.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to know how you got from “there to here.” Inspire us with your backstory!
Of course, happy to tell you a bit more about me! But I do want to start off by saying that although I’m proud of how far I’ve come, I’ve still got a long way to go. Also, content warning, my story includes mentions of violent assault, suicide, and trauma.
So I live with several chronic mental health conditions: generalized anxiety, situational depression, PTSD, and C-PTSD (Complex PSTD). I mention this first because I think it’s incredibly important to highlight that my mental health issues are not in the past tense, they are a constant part of my life.
I developed depression, anxiety, and complex PTSD (a form of PTSD that’s due to ongoing stress or trauma over a long period) at an early age. This was partly due to a very difficult family environment and partly to a history of mental illness in my family. Over time, my anxiety would trigger serious episodes of depression, which included long periods of numbness and apathy, dissociative episodes, and suicidal thoughts.
Then in college, I was attacked one night in the alley behind my apartment, robbed, beaten, and nearly raped. That led to me developing PTSD and nearly dropping out of school. It took a while, but after graduating, more family issues, and meeting a great guy, I decided I needed to get my life together, so I got myself into therapy and began working seriously on my mental health. This was in 2016.
I was also working on my freelance career at the same time. I knew early on that I wanted an independent life where I could move and travel freely and make my own decisions. I also needed to prioritize my mental health, which meant working a traditional office job wasn’t for me. So I started my freelance writing business and then, in 2017, I met my current podcast co-host and business partner, Mike Veny, while working at a conference he was speaking at.
He asked me to join his podcast as guest co-host and producer and we collaborated on a few different projects over the next few years. Building a business that supported my mental health and talking about those struggles was already very important to me, but I hadn’t yet made the decision to go that route professionally. And then COVID happened!
After some bad mental health months, I realized that I was really passionate about how people worked and how they took care of themselves. So I decided to shift my writing focus to specialize in the future of work and mental health and Mike and I began revamping our podcast. Today, Bettermental is a growing mental health resource for business owners.
I’m very grateful to be juggling multiple successful businesses, but again, I want to emphasize all this has happened alongside my mental health issues. I’ve still got a lot to learn, a lot to manage, and more businesses to start!
What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?
1. Therapy is going to change your life. Don’t wait around!
2. Set strict boundaries around toxic relationships
3. Working hard on yourself and learning to listen to your body and what it needs each day really pays off
4. Chasing different forms of stability, like more money, family, or a home aren’t going to fix your anxiety if you don’t tackle your own insecurities head on.
5. It’s never too early to start a new business!
None of us are able to experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful because of the support they gave you to grow you from “there to here?” Can you share that story and why you are grateful for them?
I’m immensely grateful to two people: my husband, Emerson, and my podcast co-host and business partner, Mike. Emerson supported me emotionally (and financially!) through some of my worst mental health years as I was also trying to build a freelance business. Mike, who also lives with chronic mental health conditions, has encouraged and challenged me every day since we met! His success is a constant source of inspiration.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?
Yes! I currently co-host a podcast called Bettermental, which focuses on mental health for business owners, freelancers, and independent workers. We talk a lot about our own experiences with mental health at work and building businesses and careers that support our (and others’!) mental health. And as of 2023, we’re working on launching a range of complementary products and services to take that mission even further!
Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?
Basically, stress is how our bodies perceive and interact with the world around us. What we all think of when we hear the word “stress” is actually “distress” or negative stress, usually a feeling of overwhelm, panic, or exhaustion. The sick feeling when you face a looming deadline, for example, or burnout after a long hard week of work.
In the Western world, humans typically have their shelter, food, and survival needs met. So what has led to this chronic stress? Why are so many of us always stressed out?
When you’re in crisis, your world narrows down to a very small point. It’s all about survival and the basic needs of life. When those basic needs are met and the brain doesn’t have to focus on them so much, all the more complex issues you’ve pushed to the back of your mind come to the surface. That’s kind of how I see how our society has dealt (or rather, not dealt!) with stress.
As a society, stress and mental health have been fairly taboo topics until recently. No one took time off work unless they had a “nervous breakdown”. Talking about mental health issues to family and friends meant admitting a weakness and could have serious consequences. Now, we have more freedom to express some of those needs and concerns. But we also face different stressors like quickly-evolving technology, climate change, and of course, the recent pandemic.
What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?
It looks different for everyone! But it’s usually some version of overwhelm. Some people slow down a lot, getting tired, drained, losing their appetite, and feeling depressed, hopeless, or just numb. Others speed up, eat more, have big mood swings, and struggle to focus or concentrate on one thing, and can’t sleep. Most people deal with a mix of different symptoms, which can make stress hard to identify.
Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?
Stress in itself is neutral, it’s not bad or good, it just is! But there are different types of stress, or rather, there are different ways to react to it.
But there’s another side to that coin called “eustress.” That’s the adrenaline-fueled, heart-pounding feeling you get when you’re about to do something new and exciting, or that sharp focused state when you’re faced with a challenge and the clock is ticking.
The catch is, we’re not always in control of our knee jerk reaction to stress. For example, anyone with anxiety will probably struggle with more negative feelings of “distress” under pressure. But therapy, medication, and other methods can help us manage those reactions and even adjust them to some extent.
Is there a difference between being in a short term stressful situation versus an ongoing stress? Are there long term ramifications to living in a constant state of stress?
Absolutely. Short-term stress can cause some of the less serious physical symptoms I mentioned before. But long-term ongoing negative stress can lead to exhaustion and burnout, trigger short-term or chronic mental health issues, or contribute to other medical issues like heart disease. Long-term negative stress, like trauma, can have a serious impact on how you function day-to-day and even how long you live!
Is it even possible to eliminate stress?
I mean, there’s no way to stop reacting to what’s going on in the world, that’s just part of existing! But you can reduce the toll stress takes on your body and mind.
In your opinion, is this something that we should be raising more awareness about, or is it a relatively small issue? Please explain what you mean.
I think we still have a lot to learn about the effects of ongoing stress day-to-day and over time. The pandemic taught us a lot about what it’s like to live collectively under a lot of strain, the feeling of isolation, the feeling of being stuck at home with nowhere to go away from people and places we care about, and that’s started a lot of great conversations. But it’s so easy to say “well, that was a one-time thing,” dismiss it, and go right back to the way things were.
Now that we all know how people’s mental health can affect their work, can affect their productivity and their ability to focus in the workplace, we need to make bigger changes. And I don’t mean trendy, meaningless work perks or mental health policies that are designed to placate potential workers and attract talent, but real, meaningful adjustments to how companies prioritize workers from the bottom up.
Let’s talk about stress at work. Numerous studies show that job stress is the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades. For you personally, if you are feeling that overall, work is going well, do you feel calm and peaceful, or is there always an underlying feeling of stress? Can you explain what you mean?
So I’m possibly the wrong person to ask this particular question because I actually have a chronic anxiety disorder, which means I live with a constant baseline of stress. Do I feel better when work is going well? Sure! But what does that mean? If I have plenty of work and good clients, I might feel calm and peaceful, or I might be overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do and that spirals into anxiety and depression. There’s a delicate balance there and over time, you have to learn to identify where your limits are. More on that in a moment!
Okay, fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview: Can you share with our readers your “5 stress management strategies that busy leaders can use to become “Stress-Proof” at Work?” Please share a story or example for each.
Strategy number one, choose mental health as a long-term strategy for yourself (and crucially, others). What we’re seeing in the workplace right now is a lot of general interest in mental health, but not a lot of commitment. Start by recognizing that mental health is a team effort. If you’re stressed, then your team probably is as well. Take a closer look at your internal systems and processes and start identifying how you can build a business that decreases, not increases, your employees’ stress at work. As an employee, prioritizing your mental health and getting to the bottom of your stress should still be a deliberate choice that you’re prepared to act on.
Number two, identify your limits. Part of making big changes at work is acknowledging your own limitations. If the stress is getting to you and you’re seeing the effects of it, try to zero in on the particular areas in work or business that are contributing to the stress and how they affect you. Last year, I spent several months tracking my work and mental health daily and found that stacking certain tasks, like back-to-back work calls, increased my anxiety and drained my productivity and energy levels.
Third, find a pace that helps you work well and live better. Work-life balance and separation have become buzzwords, but few people really look into what this means for them. On top of identifying your limitations, experiment with different ways of working that allow you to manage your stress more effectively. While this doesn’t
Fourth, ask for help. This is the most important strategy you can learn because at the end of the day, mental health is never an individual game. You cannot, cannot get rid of stress or the reasons behind it by yourself. It’s also the trickiest strategy to implement because what does it mean exactly? Well, it really depends on your resources. Asking for help can mean leaning on your personal network for things like meals, household errands, and childcare. It can mean talking to your manager about flexible scheduling or taking better advantage of wellness perks. And it should definitely include talking to a professional, whether that’s your doctor or a therapist about what you’re going through.
Finally, plan for bad days. As we discussed before, stress is a part of life. There’s no real way to eradicate it from your life completely, especially because there will always be external factors (like global pandemics!) you can’t predict. Setting boundaries, adjusting your work style, and getting support are all crucial preventative measures that give you many of the tools you need to identify and manage your stress. But you also want a backup plan for when things just go wrong. For me, a bad day means I move and work at a different pace, conserve my energy, and have to be prepared to let day-to-day chores and expectations go in order to meet deadlines and be present at work.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?
I’m going to be cheeky here and say my own podcast, Bettermental, has been hugely inspirational for me. And that’s not just to promote it! I think my co-host and I would continue recording episodes if no one was listening because it’s so therapeutic to meet and talk through things that are important to us.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Even though I am nomadic, I am passionate about helping people find the mental health resources they need close to home. So I would love to start a movement (even a small one) that supports freelancers, remote workers, and small business owners in rural areas with therapy and support systems, specifically in the UK and US.
If anyone else out there is interested in this as well, please do get in touch!
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.