Compartmentalize: Don’t Use Wine AND Cookies to Manage Stress in the Same Sitting

It wasn’t too long after becoming CEO when I realized that all of my friends in the industry were now clients and that posed a problem. How would I decompress? Who was there to talk with and occasionally whine to about the awfulness of my day? Oh sure, I had (and still do have) a wonderful, caring husband, but we had made the decision that he would stay home with the kids at a time when that decision was still a curiosity and he had his own stressful, awful days and didn’t need to be burdened with mine. The kindly founder always lent an ear and a reassuring word but I knew that he had hired me so that he did not have to address the day-to-day decisions. I needed to figure out some way of dealing with the stress of the corner office soon, because I had stopped sleeping.


Men and women deal with stress differently. Women more often use a “tend and befriend” strategy. I needed a work friend. I first called the president of a company that was similar to mine. I didn’t know her but we were in the same business, had the somewhat same client base, and her responsibilities were bigger and probably more frightening. I wondered if she slept. I left a friendly voice mail, introducing myself, asking if I could take her to lunch so we could get to know each other. Two days later the head of corporate communications returned my call to ask me what was the nature of my request. I tried to explain that I had no request; we were both women running companies in the same general space, though hers was much bigger and more important, and I thought it would be good if we got to know one another. He said he would relay that message and I never heard from him – or her – again.


Perhaps I needed another strategy since tending and befriending was not working.


I tried another CEO, a man this time, who ran another company somewhat similar. He was much more seasoned than I was. And he was gracious. He accepted my invitation to lunch and, after asking him many questions and getting direct answers, I pulled together my courage and asked him about sleeping.


“Kathi, I sleep fine. I leave the office at the end of the day and don’t give work another thought until the next morning. But your question doesn’t really surprise me, because I have found that women have a much harder time compartmentalizing than men do. You need to learn how to turn if off. ”


It seems so simple spelled out like that but it wasn’t simple for me. I felt in my bones the human consequences that our business decisions had. That didn’t mean that I couldn’t make the hard decisions or love every minute of it, but, once those hard decisions were made, I wanted to make sure that I did everything I could to communicate the why and how effectively. I didn’t know how to turn it off. Not much help there.


How do executives manage stress and is it different for women? An article in the Harvard Business Review by James Bailey (Oct. 29, 2014) talks about the ways executives managing stress – or renew – tend to fall into four categories: health activities (sleep, exercise, etc.); removal activities (TV, concerts, movies); intellectual activities (reading, hobbies such as genealogy, etc.); and introspection activities (prayer, meditation). Spending as little as 30 minutes a day in a renewal activity had a noticeable impact on an executive’s perceived stress.


I quit smoking. I bought an elliptical machine and tried to work out every day at home. I meditated every morning. I ate too many cookies. I started having a glass of wine every night. I still didn’t sleep.


Piled on top of the work challenges were all the challenges that a normal life presents for many women. We had my elderly mother living with us, we had the juggling act that having family responsibilities forces. I hated missing the important ball game or the teacher conference, but miss them I did and felt awful about it. I didn’t see friends or distant family. And I felt guilty every single day about something that was falling through the cracks at home or the office.


The business thrived. We weathered economic downturns and came through it. Our British owners sold us along with other companies and we adjusted to new management, policies and procedures. As the industries we served changed we changed along with them and offered new products and services. Some of those offerings did great and some didn’t.


Our stress can’t be resolved or our leadership challenges fixed or our difficult conversations made more manageable by “doing the 6 things every great executive does” or some other quick fix that the Internet provides with a keyword search. Some of the time we can only chip away at our challenges, a day, an hour, a single conversation at a time. I loved my job. But I never figured out how to do it and sleep.


“I was a little excited but mostly blorft. “Blorft” is an adjective I just made up that means ‘Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.’ I have been blorft every day for the past seven years.”

Tina Fey, Bossypants




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