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  • Writer's pictureMark O'Neil

Stress and the Healthcare Leader. It can be good or bad, depending on how it is dealt with.



The High Cost of Ignoring Your Stress: Insights for Healthcare Leaders


Executive coaching, especially in the healthcare space, is an ongoing learning experience, with many sources of educational materials, organizations to network with and certification organizations.


However, for the most practical source of learning, I turn to my clients. They are the most helpful source of learning for me. Self-management techniques in coaching call for me to recognize when a bell might be going off in my head that says “I’ve been there”. This is not necessarily a good thing and a hint to be careful with how I coach. I must always have the agenda of the client firmly in my sites, not my own baggage.


Few realize or are willing to admit how stressful healthcare leadership can be. To be sure, there are very few businesses where:

1. The organization must take any customer, regardless of their ability to pay.

2. Someone else sets the price and it usually bears no resemblance to cost.

3. The distribution system (mostly physicians) is largely outside of any control.


Much of my coaching is around the effect of the day-to-day stress that comes along with our profession. You may be saying that it comes with any leadership position. I DISAGREE! It is different in healthcare. It is lonely at the top of any healthcare organization. So many constituencies that need to be understood (nurses, physicians, support staff, leadership teams, professional staff of all types, regulators and members of the community). The list goes on.


To be honest, in my 40 years of healthcare leadership, I thought I was the only one who felt this way. I am by no means a neuroscientist, but I have come to believe through reading and studying and hands on coaching that the long-term effects of stress are harmful is more than just a theory.


I have lived it and I often find my clients saying something that rings true. They say that some stress is good, and I also believe that. Humans are always on guard for the “lion behind the tree”. This is the way that we are wired. However, when that stress is constant, unmanaged, and perhaps accompanied by a toxic stress imported from childhood, it can be deadly.


For me, most of my stress came from feeling overwhelmed. So much coming at me at the same time. Sometimes I dealt with that well…. sometimes not.


Certainly, I find it easier to coach from that perspective than I did leading from it. In asking the right questions about this sense of stress and where it comes from, smart people can figure out how best to deal with it. It is not the same for all. In fact, it can be quite different.


Here are some of the accepted ways:

➢Get plenty of exercise and rest

➢Eat right

➢Don’t smoke

➢Don’t drink to excess

➢Have an outlet. (For me, it was long distance hiking, fly fishing, birding….. anything out of doors.) Yours is probably different.


This is all helpful, but not enough.


It is about priorities. How we set them, how we commit to them and how we hold ourselves and our teams accountable for them. Examples:


➢How much time do we really set aside for ourselves and our family?

➢When we “turn it off”, do we do it completely or do we find ourselves looking at our phones, answering emails or just thinking about the things on our plate?

➢Do we allow others to set and then rearrange our priorities without dialogue and consensus?

➢Do we set unreasonable expectations to begin with and spend time and stress attempting to achieve them?


So if I followed these not so simple rules, why did the stress sometimes not stay within limits? That is something that we all must figure out for ourselves.


I know several retired CEOs who have survived this nicely. I also know several whose lives ended much sooner than they should have in stress related health problems such as heart attack and stroke.


We all know someone who met their end sooner than they should have. Yes, this is a bit morbid, but important. Untamed stress is a killer and needs to be recognized as such It is hard, but can be done and since we all deal with ROI daily, the return on investment in terms of happiness and health is immense.


Think about it.


Want to speak with an executive coach about the impact of stress on your leadership approach? Contact me for a complementary, confidential consultation.





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