Treading the Line between Positive and Negative Stress

Nov 4th, 2021


This week has been International Stress Awareness Week, and it has got me thinking about the positive and negative aspects of stress and how it impacts leadership.


‘Stressed’ is a word so often used when we have a lot on our plate. We all hear or utter the expression, “I’m really stressed at the moment” on a regular basis. This is generally said with negative connotations, but the reality is that high achievers thrive on stress to drive them forward, it is what makes them successful. The danger comes when the line between positive and negative stress is crossed.


Dr Bill Mitchell, a clinical psychologist and author of ‘Time to Breath’, talks about the importance of finding a balancing system and establishing the skills needed to manage pressures. He emphasises the need to be able to recognise the red flags in our day to day lives that wave a warning at us to say that we are no longer coping with the stress – these could be finding it increasingly difficult to get to sleep, being less decisive in decision making or being overly exhausted.  His theory is that once you can recognise those warning signs, you then need to make changes and take some time to reset your internal system in order to stop those stresses from becoming overbearing.  Some tips on how to reduce stress levels follow later.


This of course is easier said than done and the danger of not recognising the signs is what turns stresses that drive you forward into stresses that become all-consuming and negatively impact work and home life.


There is a science behind stress that can help differentiate between levels of defined stress. When we are under stress we get surges of the adrenaline and cortisol hormones entering our body. The hormone imbalance affects our reasoning and cognitive processes. In small measures though, or in short bursts, the impact can be positive as it can spur us on to achieve a goal. High levels of these hormones released over a prolonged period of time though can manifest themselves in more negative ways. Rather than acting as a driver, they can lead to severe mood swings, irrational thought processes, anxiety, depression and a lack of motivation.


Understanding our own stresses


In conversations with clients, they will often say they feel stuck professionally, it could be that they want a change in their careers, or that their employers have brought me in to assist their transition into new roles, or maintain the motivation of their teams at times of change. Commonly though, they will know that they feel stressed, but sometimes don’t know or can’t acknowledge what it is that is really causing the problems.


It can be challenging to be a good leader in the workplace if you are unhappy in your personal life.


The thing with stress is that if not dealt with, it won’t go away. In fact, the longer it goes on,  the more it impacts your ability to perform as a leader and be effective in your role. To deal with it though, you have to be able to identify the cause and understand what it is that is causing the stress and how you can manage it.


An executive came to me recently to undertake a Vision Intensive Programme because her company was making a number of redundancies and she thought her job was at risk. She wanted to think about what her next move might be, but was unable to motivate herself to do anything about either fighting for her job or positioning herself for a new role. As we talked and worked through different options together, it became clear that the possibility of redundancy wasn’t the sole root of her stress. Having recently moved house, she had yet to unpack and had a house full of boxes. She had also not put herself first for a very long time and wasn’t doing anything to reward herself and there was a distinct lack of joy. The reality was that without fixing those two latter parts, no matter what happened with her job, she wouldn’t have been able to motivate herself.


One common thread is that our own perception of a situation can be very different from the reality of it. What we think ‘in the moment isn’t always what we think with the benefit of hindsight and having had time to reflect and analyse. Therefore finding the time to have that reflection is key to ensuring decisions are made in an informed way, rather than impulsively.


I sat down a few weeks ago with a client who was talking at speed during our conversation. He explained that his whole week had been manic with back to back meetings every day.  He was unaware of the change in his pace and we discussed how this impacted his gravitas which returned as he slowed down. This observation led him to make changes to his diary management to include reflective time between meetings.


To identify and understand your stresses, it often helps to talk openly with an objective listener. Let them ask you questions that may be difficult to answer, but answer them honestly and openly. Who can be your objective listener?


Recognising the impact your stress has on others


One of the biggest dangers stress can have in the workplace is the impact that a leaders’ stress can have on their wider team.


A new client was concerned that their team was underperforming and he couldn’t work out why. Through the conversations I had with his team members, it was clear that he himself had created an atmosphere of acute pressure over a sustained period of time and this had left him with a team that was constantly on alert and highly stressed. In my conversations with him, he revealed that he had been going through a difficult time at home with the breakdown of a relationship and that this had been causing his own stress. Whilst he knew all along why he was stressed himself, he hadn’t been aware of how he was coming across to his team and had created a cycle of stress and frustration.


Are you able to recognise how your behaviour changes when you are stressed?


Managing your team’s stress levels


As business leaders, we have a duty to our team to help them manage their stress levels. For most of us, this means utilising soft skills to show we care, to be understanding and to help them find coping mechanisms.


Alison Brittain, CEO of Whitbread, spoke at last month’s Financial Times Women in Business forum about the importance of predicting periods of stress for employees and taking steps in advance to minimise the impact. For her, this meant rewarding staff prior to a particularly busy period for their hotels and restaurants. She knew there was no way of removing the stressful situation, but felt that by showing staff that the hard work they were about to do was being appreciated, she was able to at least reduce the risks associated with stressful periods.


Companies have a duty to their employees to play their part in preventing burnouts. Leaders naturally create micro-cultures within their own teams. And in my experience, if leaders value balance in their own life they want it for their teams and are able to spot potential burn-out signs.  Simple practices will help like sharing ideas as a team on how we can all retain balance and promoting openness as to where we are at with our stress levels and not being too proud to ask for help. Empathy is now being recognised as a critical leadership skill, which has a significant positive effect on the workforce. It also helps team members feel more at ease with turning to their managers when they need help.


Top tips for reducing or preventing stress levels


  1. Ensure you get good quality sleep – use the sleep well-being functions on your phone to set yourself sleep times and aim for at least seven hours of sleep each night
  2. Improve your dietary habits by making sure you are eating the right foods at the right time and following an ‘antidepressant’ diet.
  3. Have a set of non-negotiable habits that form part of your daily routine – daily walk, cooking, reading a chapter of a book
  4. Maintain good relationships at work and at home so that you have a close and trustworthy network – put in place routines for connecting with people on a daily basis
  5. Don’t be afraid to say no to extra work or responsibilities – think about the consequences of saying ‘yes’. Saying no with enthusiasm to stop it appearing as though you are being difficult – “I would love to take this on, and I am currently doing this other project that would be impacted by this – what is more important?
  6. Identify your biggest stressors and establish an action plan for dealing with them rather than leaving them to fester
  7. Spend time thinking about the red flags that act as a warning sign so that you recognise them when you see them
  8. Find someone you can talk to openly without fear of being judged and who will ask you the difficult questions


It is a common trait for ambitious people to take on challenges and that brings with them potential stresses.  It is important that we learn to recognise when we are reaching the cliff edge that switches from positive to negative stress and pull back in time so that we can harness the energy that comes from the stress that gives us our edge and enables us to succeed and thrive.


If you would like to find out more about simple ways to build mental fitness so you and your team thrive do contact me at  If you would like to know more about what our clients have gained from our coaching we have lots of testimonials that you might find interesting.


Related articles:


How to nip self-doubt in the bud (as featured in Management Today)

Is your business hybrid-ready (as featured in Prime Resi)

Work-life balance in the post pandemic age (as featured in We Are the City)