20 QUESTIONS IN 30 DAYS. #6. Understanding the Influence of Life Stress on Executive Performance

QUESTION NUMBER 6. What does the behaviour of light have to do with the behaviour of nature and what does the behaviour of nature have to do with the behaviour of human beings?

What then is the comparison between light and thought?

This comprehensive article explains how monitoring your HRV through the use of a device such as an Oura Ring can help you pinpoint stressors that are hindering your performance at work, at home and in your chosen hobby sport.

After putting in years of diligent base experience, your day (10 years) in the sun at work season approaches. If you’re like most executives, you don’t spend that much time thinking about the process because you’re just following a plan, and doing what makes your career and personal life thrive. The basic process isn’t that complicated, and it’s worth taking a look at, as you’ll see below.

Figure out

Exec Ability

Job Demands

Manipulate

Work Load

Intensity

Manage

CWL

AWL

TSB

Outcome

Performance

Most leaders follow this process to produce peak performance in those they coach:

  1. Determine an individual’s strengths and weaknesses with respect to job demands
  2. Manipulate the intensity and volume of demand of the individual to produce specific adaptations
  3. Manage Chronic Work Load (CWL, or Productivity), Acute Training Load (AWL, or Fatigue) and Total Stress Balance (TSB, or Form) to produce peak performance when it matters

As an executive, what you probably notice the most during the growth period is the ‘Manipulate’ column. Why? Because jobs get harder, take longer, and you get tired! 

Or, to use the language of leadership, during the build period, your work load gets harder (intensity goes up), and sometimes the duration (volume) of your work also goes up, which results in the highest (or nearly the highest) work load of your career. Because you’re accumulating more fatigue than normal, you’re tired.

The temptation for executives to work themselves ragged is always a danger because they think that the more fatigue, stress or tiredness, the greater their performance — wrong! The chronic accumulation of work and life stress (i.e., CWL) is an executive’s potential for performance. Achieving peak performance required for leadership at a C-suite level, requires careful, specific loading and unloading of work stress to maximise the body and mind’s adaptation. If you work too much or too little, your performance won’t be optimal. 

So, how can an executive optimally manage work stress through the long build period to produce their best performance as a leader in the long haul?

Understanding the Influence of Life Stress on Executive Performance

CWL, AWL, and TSB are all worthy things to know and manage; but as an executive, you’re much better off understanding, measuring, and managing something the work process model doesn’t mention — Total Life Stress. 

Total Life Stress (TLS) is all of the stress an executive experiences in life regardless of source, which can include training, work, relationships, diet, environment, lifestyle, etc. Executives sometimes struggle to realise (or admit) this, but work stress isn’t the only factor affecting performance. Every other stressor in life affects performance as well — sometimes even more than the work itself! Your body and mind doesn’t differentiate between the source of your stress, so stress outside of work is a crucial variable to manage if you want to optimise your performance, leadership and work load to perform your best. 

To manage something, however, you need to measure it. Thankfully, you can objectively quantify your TLS using heart rate variability (HRV).

While HRV isn’t a perfect way to model TLS, adjusting your lifestyle in response to HRV can produce better work execution and adaptation in the build period, which increases the chances of better performance outcomes as a leader.

What Is HRV?

First, let’s do a brief rundown of heart rate variability. Your heartbeats are not consistent or consistently spaced; there are (normal) fluctuations in the amount of time between your heartbeats. This variation in heart rate is known as your heart rate variability or HRV and is measured in milliseconds.  

HRV measures the interplay between the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which is responsible for physiological processes you have no control over directly. 

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), nicknamed ‘rest and digest’, allows you to recover and causes decreases in heart rate variability. By contrast, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), nicknamed ‘fight or flight’, allows you to respond to stress and causes increases in heart rate variability. 

Both systems send signals to your heart asking it to slow down (PNS) or speed up (SNS) depending on what you’re doing (e.g. sitting on the couch, VO2 max intervals, etc). The competing signals cause fluctuations (i.e., the variability in heart rate variability).  

A high HRV indicates that your ANS is robust, well-balanced, and ready to respond to stress. A low HRV indicates an imbalanced ANS that is less responsive to stress. 

How to Measure HRV

The most common way athletes can measure HRV is by using a heart rate monitor, a wrist-based optical heart rate monitor, an Oura Ring with an app on your smartphone. HRV sensors and apps also measure resting heart rate, which is best used as an indicator of increased aerobic fitness. The raw HRV data can be difficult to interpret, so most apps will convert it to a more easily interpretable score.

For HRV and resting heart rate to be meaningful, you must take measurements at the same time and in the same way every day to develop a baseline of data. With enough data, you can see trends in your HRV and, by proxy, your TLS. 

Oura ring has its own App.

How to Interpret HRV

Once you obtain a baseline HRV, what should you take away from your data?

A healthy, resilient executive managing their TLS will enjoy a high, relatively unvarying HRV combined with a stable, low resting heart rate (RHR). An unhealthy, sickness/overworking/domestically challenged executive will have lower, volatile HRV readings. Take a look at the heart rate variability chart below for an easy-to-understand visual.

Here are a few additional HRV facts to keep in mind:

  • HRV does not predict performance; instead, it’s a window into fatigue. You can regularly perform well even when fatigued (e.g., if you wake up with a low HRV reading), but remember that for adaptation to occur, you must recover. 
  • If HRV remains within a normal range after you complete a hard day of stress, it’s a great sign! A stable HRV demonstrates that your nervous system could absorb the stimulus.
  • HRV is a reflection of the nervous system, so it won’t necessarily correlate with other life stressors, like delayed onset shock or stress.
  • When executives begin to measure HRV, they naturally wonder how their score compares to that of other individuals. While this can be useful, realize that gender, age, health, and fitness levels complicate direct comparison. For reference, here’s an excellent review of HRV demographics to see how your HRV values compare.
  • While more rare, a single HRV reading that is much higher than normal can also indicate fatigue.
  • If you’re interested in more in-depth information about HRV you’ve got too much time on your hands.

The fun part about monitoring your HRV is that you can start to experiment on yourself. Once you have an HRV baseline, you can start altering your habits to decrease TLS and then confirm if those changes are working by monitoring trends in your HRV and TLS. If you consistently reduce your TLS, you’ll be able to sustain and adapt to the high work load of your build period and perform better in leadership. 

As a coach, the most important subcategory of executive progress and improved ability besides “Physical” that affects performance is “Life”.

Why? “The executive chooses the type of life they want to live and that, in turn, determines the load they’ll be able to absorb at work.”

If you’re like most executives, you’re not paid to increase your workload. Instead, your priorities look something like this:

EXECUTIVE PRIORITIES VERSUS TIME SPENT.

Consequently, your ability to execute and adapt to workload — especially the intense, demanding expectations of the top end of business — depends on the stability and balance of your priorities that take precedence outside of work.

These priorities include your relationships, sport training, financial responsibilities, etc. If you can identify potential stressors in these areas, you can develop a plan to mitigate the issue before it adds enough stress to your TLS that it negatively impacts your work performance and leadership in the crucial period of your life.

During a build period in your work, your relationship with significant other and friends tend to be accepted in a compromised state in order to avoid TLS, the issues of differences and lost quality can easily be pushed aside, in order to fulfil the demand of work and leadership. To lower TLS, sometimes we ignore ourselves getting fat, being angry, lonely or disappointed, ultimately leading to deterioration in our HRV. In other words we try to lower TLS by avoiding issues, but in doing so, deteriorate our HRV. 

Your HRV may reveal some of the stress of that friction.

As you can see in the illustration above of one of my client’s HRV, their HRV (yellow line) was highly variable and generally trending downward, indicating high TLS. At the time, the executive was going through considerable professional change, which added a lot of stress to their life and led to relationship conflict. While the executive was entering an important leadership period for the year, planning and vision setting, they had to adjust their intensity and work load and instead prioritise stress reduction for a chance to succeed. 

Interestingly, looking at the executives goal setting and holiday calendar wouldn’t have uncovered the TLS they were enduring — their work objectives were being completed and executed well, for the most part. Keeping an eye on HRV combined with honest communication revealed their true TLS and helped them avoid a negative outcome. 

Nutrition

Achieving “healthy body weight” is an almost universal aspiration for leaders. Many get completely distracted by running triathlons and such is often a weight management process, or a stress management process rather than a real goal. Adding TLS. While there’s nothing wrong with optimising your body composition, your dieting approach and timing can undermine your work, adaptation, and ultimately your performance.

While small nutritional changes aren’t always apparent in HRV, dramatic nutritional shifts often are. One of my executives HRV were trending well initially, but suddenly, a drop coincided with poorer working quality.

On our weekly phone call, I asked what they thought the issue was, and they admitted they were doing the once a day eating programme, fasting 20 hours a day, avoiding food for 18 hours a day to lose a couple of kilos. The stress of that dietary change combined with a high workload clearly showed up in their HRV and resting heart rate. 

Thankfully, we were able to have a constructive discussion about when and how to work on body composition changes, helped in part by showing them the impact on HRV, which clearly showed the impact diet was having on their TLS. 

There’s a time and place for you to experiment with your diet, but it should never coincide with a high TLS period when energy demand is highest. 

Alcohol

According to a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, if you’re a high pressure executive, you’re more likely to drink alcohol. While executives often delude themselves into thinking that alcohol doesn’t negatively affect performance, HRV objectively confirms what an executive’s hangover is already telling them — alcohol tanks recovery and performance.

How much does alcohol impair recovery? Just observe, as an example, your HRV from one big night out. Your HRV sharply drops, and your RHR sharply increased. 

Recovery

Recovery is even more critical to your success in a busy period because of work load demands. Innerwealth published a popular article about alcohol and recovery before, but it bears repeating that many executives — over 45 year olds, in particular — regularly consume enough alcohol to negatively affect their recovery, TLS, HRV and performance as a leader.  

Amongst my clients the two most common reasons cited for drinking are moral licensing and stress relief. Moral licensing is a phenomenon whereby we falsely believe that one good action can excuse or negate a bad action. For example, imagine you train on the turbo on the bike for two hours, work hard and then drink four beers because you ‘did a lot today’. 

While there’s some truth to the health buffering effects of hard work, it’s wishful thinking to believe that your workload will cancel out your drinking. It’s not an exaggeration to point out that when you drink, you’re essentially poisoning yourself. Your body drops everything to process the alcohol and flush it out of your system before it resumes any other tasks, like replenishing your glycogen stores or repairing all the muscular and metabolic damage you created during your ten-hour working day. In other words, drinking isn’t canceled out by the stress of your day; it adds to the stress of your day. If alcohol consumption is chronic, you will never work, love and lead to your potential because your recovery is always compromised. 

Second, most executives don’t work or lead just for a living and have demanding, stressful lives outside of work. To relieve the stress, they drink. While that’s understandable, it’s easy for alcohol to become their only stress coping mechanism while never working to reduce the cause of the stress or find different ways to relax. 

How can you reduce your alcohol intake so your work and recovery during the leadership high period improve? 

  1. Begin a sober challenge: Challenge yourself to the equivalent of “Sober October”.
  2. Switch to non-alcoholic: Don’t roll your eyes — NA is no longer just O’douls. It’s an exploding industry offering non-alcoholic beverages with more than passable drinkability. 
  3. Embrace moderation: If you aren’t open to teetotaling, consider sticking to CDC guidelines, which recommend a maximum of two standard drinks per day for men and one for women. Simply moderating your consumption can sometimes trigger a massive improvement in execution and adaptation.

If you aren’t open to changing your drinking habit, that’s fine — just realise regular consumption of alcohol will have a detrimental effect on the quality of your leadership, high success period and, eventually, your performance (let alone your life). 

Sleep

Lastly, poor sleep will always limit your potential, but it can especially hinder your progression in the high TLS period. Sleep is the most important driver of recovery. If you skimp on sleep, you are unwittingly (or wittingly!) agreeing to compromise your ability to adapt to your workload. 

Conveniently, many devices and software that calculate HRV also collect extensive sleep data. As reviewers like DC Rainmaker have pointed out, the validity of this data collection can be questionable. Still, I’d suggest that your sleep data doesn’t have to be perfect to be helpful. If you upload your HRV and sleep data from your Oura Ring, you get a dashboard chart to estimate how much you’re sleeping and if it might be limiting you.

Evaluating your sleeping habits is always a good place to start if you feel chronic fatigue. It’s true that some executives have chronic sleeping issues or lead such busy lives that they really can’t sleep more. Still, in many cases, the main culprit is an obvious bad sleeping habit, like being a victim of Netflix’s automatic “next episode” feature. If you can improve your sleep, it’ll quickly benefit the quality of your success and fulfilment.

Conclusions About HRV, Stress, and Executive Performance

Achieving the greatest work performance improvements, performance from your intense load periods, requires more than knocking out your days and getting home completely zonked. You also have to manage your TLS to maximise your evolution.

To do so, watch your HRV trend.

Is it stable and increasing, or is it variable and decreasing?

If your HRV trends are poor, what lifestyle factors might be contributing to the decrease? What adjustments can you make to produce better results?

The key to your breakthrough in work performance might not be perfectly executing your goals, or deadlines, but instead managing all of the lifestyle factors that leadership and evolution depend upon.

With Spirit

Chris

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