From stress to success: how dedicated therapy supports business leaders

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Paula Gardner talks us through the benefits of an approach that focuses on a therapist knowing your business and people

Signing up to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) that offers therapy on demand for your employees is almost standard practice nowadays. Almost every business that can afford it sees the value that looking after its people and their mental health brings to productivity, retention rates, engagement and general level of satisfaction in the workplace, as this piece from Forbes lays out.

The big issue for business is that when stress levels are high, we don’t have full access to the thinking part of our brain, which results in brain fog, difficulty making decisions, emotions running high, irritability and a lack of focus.

An alternative approach is to offer therapy from a dedicated therapist, who understands your business, its particular pressures, the rhythms of the industry and how they can affect work, stress and motivation. This may be onsite, or online, but the key difference from an EAP is the insight and understanding which means that therapy is offered in context. This is particularly helpful for owners, leaders, managers and anyone making impactful decisions, where that therapist can provide an additional level of support.

Access to thinking

When we are stressed, there’s a part of our brain called the amygdala which has been triggered to release cortisol and adrenaline. This is perfectly normal, and part of the fight or flight system that keeps us safe. The issue is that most positions of leadership are often highly stressful, with issues coming at us from all directions. When those stress levels are too high, or go on for too long, as can easily happen, it’s as if our amygdala gets stuck on high alert, and those high levels of adrenaline and cortisol become the norm. This often results in what people call feelings of anxiety – tightness in the chest, nausea, a feeling like something awful is about to happen.

The big issue for business is that when those levels are high, we don’t have full access to our cortex, the thinking part of our brain. This results in brain fog, difficulty making decisions, emotions running high, irritability and a lack of focus. Even one of these alone can be highly detrimental to leadership.

How a dedicated therapist can help

Each therapist will have their speciality and different ways of working. One therapist may work hard to create a non-judgemental space where a leader can feel safe to talk through what’s going on for them, and find real benefit in the unburdening and support. Another may work with a more solution-focused approach. This is where the leader choses a particular goal they want to work with, such as improving a tricky relationship with a co-worker, or anxiety around public speaking, and their work together is focused on that goal. Some therapists are able to offer both approaches, tailoring their style to the leader’s needs.

Here are some of the most common things that can come up amongst leaders having therapy:

  • Coping with life

    Leaders are subject to all the usual issues that come up in life, such as a relationship break-up, death of a loved one or worry about a child that seems to be going off the rails. Knowing that there is time and space to deal with these can feel hugely supportive and empowering.

  • Relationships at work

    Even in the most supportive and bonded of environments, difficult relationships can rise to the surface. Whilst training can give you skills to manage staff or mediate, what they don’t generally address is the impact on you, and your feelings, which can unconsciously rise to the surface and impinge on all those new skills you’ve learned. A therapist can guide you through, helping you notice your own triggers and behaviours, and improving the way you communicate with others around you.

  • People pleasing behaviours

    Many of us find it hard to say no, or have wobbly boundaries with colleagues or clients. People pleasing behaviour is often learned in our early years as a form of survival, but it can be unpicked and new, more helpful and productive behaviours substituted. This makes for fresher and calmer leaders who aren’t feeling resentful and exhausted.

  • Recognising and working with stress

    Whist some stress is good (this this called eustress) and enhances productivity, too much and that cortisol and adrenaline spike is triggered. If this goes on too long, we get physical symptoms (headaches, digestive issues, blood pressure), emotional symptoms (anger, irritability, tearfulness), as well as that lack of ability to concentrate and make decisions.

    A therapist can help leaders notice their own triggers and warning signs that stress overload on the way, and work with them to create a menu of effective options to help them cope.

  • Trauma healing

    Many make the mistake of thinking that trauma is always the big things – car crashes or abuse for instance. In reality, everything from a bullying boss to a toxic relationship to a badly handled redundancy can be traumatic. Sometimes that creates post-traumatic growth where we work through it ourselves and move on. However, traumas, even ancient ones, can reveal their head and knock any of us off course at any time, resulting in anxiety, phobias, OCD, PTSD, or depression. They can also interfere with business too, dominating behaviours, and stopping us from thinking clearly.

    Many therapists offer trauma work and can help leaders deal with these if and when they come up, minimising the impact that trauma has on their life and the business.

Final thoughts

In summary, a dedicated therapist brings a nuanced and personalised approach to supporting business leaders, going beyond the standard Employee Assistance Programmes. By understanding the unique pressures of the business environment, therapists help leaders navigate challenges and overcome potential obstacles, fostering emotional resilience and clear decision-making.

Investing in the wellbeing of leaders and all employees through dedicated therapy not only enhances their personal satisfaction but also contributes to sustained success in the fast-paced realm of business.

Paula Gardner, therapist and business psychologist at Scarlet Thinking.

Paula Gardner

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