Set a timer in your phone or computer to notify you every two hours. Walk away from your desk, and if it is a nice day outside, even your office. When I started doing this for just ten minutes every two hours, I found a significant reduction in my stress levels and with increasing frequency I reached the end of the day without having experienced any truly disruptive stress.
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 Lesley Michaels.
Lesley Michaels was born to feminism and was later one of the first women to break through the glass ceiling of the “old boy” industry of oil and gas. Michaels’ body of unique life experiences have provided her with a first-hand understanding of the daily struggles faced by women of every race, culture, and sexual orientation. On the Shoulders of Mighty Women is a tribute to the power and grace of those who came before and the ones who will follow, the warriors and the fallen.
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!
I describe my life as having been lived in a circle of women. Deeply influenced by my paternal, suffragette, grandmother, I came of age just as the 2nd wave of feminism was becoming a significant American social movement. At age 16 I struck out on my own for NYC and the heart of the cultural transformation that was the zeitgeist of the late 1960’s, early 1970’s.
Having broken through the glass ceiling in the “old boy” industry of oil and gas, I found the ruthless competitiveness of the women in the corporate world shocking and emotionally fracturing. This ultimately convinced me to abandon the corporate world, where infected by a latent entrepreneurial spirit, I developed and sold several small businesses. Ownership gave me the refreshing freedom to choose how the business would be shaped. In each case my staff was a multicultural representation of women.
During this same period, I became a leader in the coaching/mentoring industry. I have mentored Fortune 100 C-Suite executives, individuals within the financially privileged sector, and celebrities. A lifelong and dedicated student of human behavior I observed that the level of distress still experienced by women in corporate hemispheres was causing many to walk away. They were losing their dream and both industry and the world was losing leaders of tremendous merit. Developing effective solutions to pull back the veil of this dirty little secret and create new paradigms for success inspired my recently released, number one bestseller: On the Shoulders of Mighty Women.
What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?
That “I don’t” (know, understand, see a clear path) is not the same as “I can’t”. The later fuels stress and doubt which will repeatedly peak, causing a struggle for traction with any endeavor or project.
Begin by evaluating whether you find the opportunity interesting enough to pursue. Does it feel like something that could ultimately deliver a deep sense of accomplishment? If so, step back to gain a broader view. What are the skills you have already finetuned that you can now lean into? What primary aspect of the project is something that comes naturally to you? Initiating from the strength point of existing talents will help to avoid becoming overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, as you develop the new and additional skills necessary to experience a successful outcome.
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?
During my time in corporate oil and gas the company vice president to whom I answered directly became a valued mentor. His experienced counsel left me in good stead then and unto this day.
One of the two most empowering nuggets I received from him came during a tense moment in a meeting we attended with a rival company. The other company’s representative made it known that he found being required to complete the ongoing negotiations with a ‘girl’ unacceptably beneath him. (Note: In 1985 it was still common practice for men to speak to and of women in this demeaning manner) Ultimately, he declined the option proposed by my boss to pass the project off to someone else within his company.
Later, commending my handling of the situation while also addressing the uncomfortable nature of the interaction, my VP offered a sage piece of wisdom that helped me break the habit of second guessing myself. “Remember one thing; If you aren’t getting blow back, you aren’t playing your best game.”
The second most valuable nugget that shaped my professional life was when he asked me to define the most important trait of a great leader. I am pleased to be able to say that I neither tried to guess or pretended to know, but forthrightly asked him to elaborate.
“A great leader works everyday to educate and empower the people over whom they hold influence, to the point of making themself dispensable. Only the weak or insecure leader needs to be deemed irreplaceable.”
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?
I am quite excited to be launching my new Women’s Leadership Training program during Q1 of 2023. Shattering Your Own Glass Ceilings. My years of experience in mentoring women alongside my dedication to advocating for gender equity were the original impetus for the program but three points stand out as my key inspirations.
- One evening a friend who is a high-level recruiter for a top tier executive recruiting firm in NYC called in great frustration and despair. She consistently finds a notable majority of the female clients she works with unwilling to present a salary request equal to their value. Even when she explains that the company in question is eager to balance the male, female representation in their executive offices, most women will not increase their stated salary requirements. On the other hand, men will confidently state their salary expectation. If the initial salary offer does not meet their expectations but the role is something they are sincerely interested in, they will remain undeterred while pressing the negotiations forward.
- Later, I came across a series of articles on the difference between how men and women pursue promotions or project leadership roles. These studies indicated that if a man possesses approximately 60% of the necessary skills to successfully lead a special project or fulfill a higher position, they will pursue the opportunity. Further, men rarely present themselves as a ‘good’ candidate. Rather they self-advocate from the position of being unquestionably superior to all other candidates. On the other hand, it is typical of women to wait until they possess around 80% of the skills to assure success. This is one of the critical ways through which women limit themselves.
- The majority of men begin learning and developing the art of negotiating salary starting with their first position straight out of college. Not only does this keep them ahead on the salary curve throughout their professional lives, but it also builds a level of self-confidence that serves them in all aspects of their careers and even their non-professional lives. To their detriment, the significant majority of women entering the workforce after college respond the opening salary being offered with a passive, “thank you”.
Studies by NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) reveal that on average, men start out at approximately $12,000 more than women.
I have spent the past two years developing, testing and finetuning this program from a commitment to help women break free of internalized limitations and shatter their own glass ceilings. It is time to see more women in all aspects of leadership, and there is no lack of women who possess the brilliance, intellect and capacity to assume these positions. But to claim these spaces for themselves it is necessary that they become sufficiently comfortable with their professional talents to ask for salaries equal to their value. Learning to set realistic expectations of themselves in deciding when to pursue a promotion or project leadership role, and to exercise their agency in negotiating their way into positions of authority, is equally important in the movement toward gender equity.
Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?
Whether it’s chronic or episodic, I describe stress as being identifiable through a variety of feelings. Overwhelm, threatened, dread, and a lack of self-confidence are a few of the more common.
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?
In the aftermath of a global pandemic, mental health experts around the world are reporting stress levels spiking throughout all sectors of every country. The increased percentages in the U.S. being reported as the highest worldwide. The conversations I have on a daily support the data that this is particularly true for women. A reported 200,000 companies nationwide, a number that includes two-thirds of small, independent businesses were permanently closed due to COVID. This has produced stressors in our post-pandemic environment about the conflicting situations of reduced available positions and insufficient employees to fill the positions that are available. The loss of financial exchange caused by temporary closure of businesses that did survive the pandemic is another factor, having caused inflation to spike internationally. All of this is escalating stress about finance and security.
On the upside entrepreneurialism is on the rise, particularly among women. This is an opportune moment in history for both women and men to take pause, evaluate their skills and talents and consider inventive ways to apply those in new and independent directions. Acting on one’s own behalf, especially in a direction that utilizes our greater talents, can produce feelings of freedom and promise for the future. Both being feelings that can soothe the hostile effects of stress factors.
What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?
Stress is a state of fight, flight or freeze. Because stress causes an accelerated production and release of adrenalin, cortisol, and additional stress hormones from our limbic system, it can cause our mind to feel like it’s spinning out of control. It can also sound like mental white noise, due to the amount of random electromagnetic activity. Because the stress hormones, including adrenalin move through the entire nervous system, a sense of static can be experienced throughout our bodies, clouding, and distorting the capacity for clear thought. As stress becomes exaggerated, it causes restriction in our blood and oxygen flow throughout our organs, neural pathways and musculature. This creates the basis for a number of unhealthy repercussions.
Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?
Stress is not an all or nothing experience. Too little can produce a sense of malaise that often results in chronic boredom, or even depression. It can also cause the immune system to become sluggish, creating a friendly environment to illness. On the other hand, chronic, ongoing stress can hyper-stimulate the immune system to exhaustion, producing an environment equally vulnerable to illness. Additionally, it keeps the heart and nervous system in a state of constant stimulation the does not allow the body to fully rest and rejuvenate.
A reasonable amount of stress is natural, as it is a part of our internal survival system. A good example of this being a situation when we are crossing the street when a car dangerously races around the corner in our direction. The heightened awareness and surge of adrenaline that instantaneously occurs can ensure that we jump out of the way in time to escape harm. While we might not traditionally think of this as a stress response, all the same internal mechanisms have been triggered.
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?
Short term stress is typically situational. The panic experienced when we can’t find our billfold after returning from a shopping trip. A rush of adrenaline when we realize that we need to have a report completed by the following morning when we had thought it wasn’t due until next week. These stressors will generally pass with the location of the billfold or completing to work of assembling the report.
Long term or chronic stress is typically the result of ongoing mental and emotional fear, unrest or persistent dissatisfaction. These can include an unfulfilling job, or a situation of working in a hostile situation. A marriage that has no joy, but that someone feels unable to leave is a common source of chronic stress, particularly if it is rife with discord. One source of long-term stress that I help clients address on a regular basis is a sense of inadequacy.
Each of these result in an expanding loss of self-esteem that can cause states of depression, aggression, fatalism, and a state of numbly moving through life. Due to the impact of the body chemicals that are helpful in short, irregular infusions, but not meant to be experienced on a day long, weeklong basis, issues ranging from chronic muscle tension and migraine headaches to heart disease are common results. Long-term stress can shorten lifespan from a number of physiological directions.
Is it even possible to eliminate stress?
Absolutely. I will add that it is an ongoing process. Yoga, running, power walking, working out, dancing, meditating, sitting or lying down with your eyes closed and focusing all your attention on some gentle music all reduce or eliminate stress. And since each of these are recommended as regular activities due to the physical benefits, the reasons to choose your favorite and work it into a regular routine is redoubled.
There are also small things we can do through the workday to eliminate, or at least reduce stress, to maximize our efficiency as well as work life enjoyment.
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.
Long-term or chronic stress has been growing as a significant issue in our society for decades. Based on the increase of anti-anxiety and anti-depression drug prescriptions since 2009, I feel that as a society, we need new proactive approaches that accomplish more than just numbing the symptoms of stress.
Fortunately, as a society, we are beginning to take mental health issues out of the dark closets and look more deeply into their causes, ramifications and potential treatments. Chronic stress has a direct correlation to sound mental health as it is a source of depression, insomnia, hostile outbursts that can deliver harm inwardly or outwardly. Long-term or chronic stress has also been cited as a growing cause for suicide. It is commonly named as the root source of substance abuses, ranging from alcoholism to stress eating disorders and narcotics, both prescribed and black market.
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?
What an interesting question, as it invited me to take a moment to reflect on my own progression beyond the grip of chronic stress. For many years I wrestled with chronic stress that continually buzzed like a fly living in my brain. A habit bestowed upon me through generational tradition.
There came a moment of clarity that I was no longer willing to put up with it, and the absence of peace it was producing.
I started with the two things that had previously offered the best results and committed to those two alone. I began meditating everyday for 20–30minutes. Additionally, I rejoined the gym, for the umpteenth time, but now with commitment. After six months my mind was clearer and calmer than I could remember. I will confess that there were more than a few days that I had to push myself hard to meditate or workout, and on all but a bare minimum of occasions, my will won the day.
While I still meditate and workout, I have since tested other practices developed by others and developed and tested a number of my own. Getting determinedly started is not the easiest thing to do, but I can assure anyone who is willing to commit that it will change their reality. And as you pointed out, work stress is increasing in leaps and bounds in the U.S., so beginning sooner than later is of generous a service to those willing to start and ready to feel calmer and happier.
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.
- Set a timer in your phone or computer to notify you every two hours. Walk away from your desk, and if it is a nice day outside, even your office. When I started doing this for just ten minutes every two hours, I found a significant reduction in my stress levels and with increasing frequency I reached the end of the day without having experienced any truly disruptive stress.
- If you have not yet acquired an ergonomic standing desk, rising from your chair for 5–10 minutes of each hour can reduce the stress on your body by maintaining circulation which will also help with mental stress. I learned of this pattern from a colleague before standing desks were on-trend. I found that as I physically moved with more consistency, the absence of muscle strain from sitting all day, reduced the mental stress I experienced.
- At the end of your day, take 15–20 minutes to create your outline for tomorrow. Creating this outline while everything you will need to address is still active in your mind, will save you valuable time getting focused in the morning. When you arrive at work, you are ready to dive right in and maximize your day. This is something I learned from my mentor in corporate oil. As it evolved into a daily practice, I found I was no longer having stressful moments close to the end of the day, due to recalling something important that had slipped my mind.
- Have a whiteboard that is separated with vertical lines into three columns. Today. (which you fill in the end of the previous day)
This week. End of Month, these are your line items that are ongoing and need to be completed by the end of the current month. Keep them in front of you to avoid stress and panic of having let them slip through the cracks until the 11th hour. I’ve had white boards for years, but it wasn’t until I was visiting a colleague’s office and spotted hers that I learned of this approach. The impact on my efficiency was one of the great stress reducers I have discovered in the past decade.
- This is one of my favorites and it has served me well while proving highly effective for hundred’s of clients. It’s my own creation, the product of one of those spontaneous moments of inspiration that came when I was studying brain science. We’ve all had times of watching something before sleeping and in the morning it’s right there, still cycling through our mind. Consequently, being selective of the last input of the day is helpful in setting us up for success tomorrow.
Have a journal by your bed that you use only for this practice.
Last thing before sleeping write down 5 things you did exceptionally well that day. This can be anything from baking the best lasagna you’ve ever made to closing the big deal you’ve been working on for six months.
Importantly: With each notation, take a moment or two and revisit the feeling of success and pride in your accomplishment before going to the next item.
From my personal experience and what I’ve witnessed in clients, the levels of confidence in your skills and talents, the degree of success and the fulfillment for what you achieve, expands continuously with consistent application of this simple practice.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?
In 2018, just before his book, The Happiness Advantage launched I had the opportunity to meet with Shawn Achor. By spending that time with him I could see some of the ways he lives what he teaches, which inspired dive into that first book, and I’ve since recommended it to many.
A colleague, Tanya Memme, has a powerful podcast entitled Life Masters. To give your readers just a hint, Tanya is candid about her fall from the top to the bottom. To get back up she decided to speak with 100 people who have fallen and gotten back up to rise beyond where they were. Tanya consistently brings inspiring stories and guests to her listeners.
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. 🙂
Lift one with you as you rise, is something that has been living in my mind and heart for years. While it is something I’ve long believed and spoken of in many situations, Ilyana Vanzant said it more poignantly than I.” The way to achieve your own success is to be willing to help someone else get there first.”
Having worked in promotion of gender equity for much of my life, one of my regular heartbreaks is seeing women address younger women coming up behind them with incivility and dismissal. As I mentioned earlier, I had my own experience with this during my years in corporate oil and gas. I recognize this ‘mean girl syndrome’ as something that is imprinted into many young girls from their earliest years in school. I see us as capable of more and better, as well as deserving of a higher standard for ourselves and each other.
If I could start a movement, it would be an initiative among women to Lift One With You as You Rise. One of the beautiful aspects of this being that as women rise and gender equity grows closer and is ultimately achieved, men will benefit, children will benefit, society will benefit. There would be no losers in the achievement of such a movement.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
Through my website they will find my training courses, my podcast; Women We Should Know, links to my book; On the Shoulders of Mighty Women, and some great tips that they can put into action to initiate their own internal shifts.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.