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March 6, 2023

Leadership perspectives on stress

Wendi Wheeler

Finding balance

A certain level of stress can be motivational and stimulating. It can help us focus our energy. It can emphasize our passion and commitment. But as Albert Einstein reportedly said, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

Our company leaders discuss managing stress and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. 

Tim Fleming, CEO of Marsh McLennan Agency (MMA)’s Upper Midwest Region, has been in a leadership role for most of his career. He acknowledges that our jobs can be stressful but also rewarding. 

“We’re in a really competitive business, and all of us set such high standards for taking care of our clients,” Fleming said. “That stress can be good because it can help you perform at your best, but when it’s out of balance you have to be able to uncover that and address it.”

In 2022, MMA surveyed business leaders about how stress affects them. The results were not surprising, but they paint a meaningful picture of our work lives and our lives outside of work.

• One-third work more than 50 hours per week

• 49% say stress impacts personal and family life 

• 40% say they have health issues as a result of stress

• Ability to take time off and detach from work ranked lowest in satisfaction

• 9 out of 10 are stressed about recruiting and retaining talent

• 88% said workplace morale contributed to their stress level 

In this follow-up to our Workplace Stress Study, we asked some of our senior leaders to reflect on their own experiences and to share how they manage stress in their lives. They offer their thoughts and ideas on what they do to feel better, work better, and live better.

What about work-life balance?

The long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are still unfolding and being studied. But the fact cannot be denied—our sudden and complete shift to work-from-home had a lasting impact on what was once a more definable barrier between work and home. It’s not that we didn’t bring work home with us before 2020, but at least our commute was farther than from the living room to the dining room.

Work and home are one and the same for many of us. This means work-induced stress has the potential to affect us personally, affect our productivity and relationships with coworkers, and affect our loved ones as well. 

Participants in our Workplace Stress Study reported:

• 68% feel their work-life balance could be improved

• 96% are somewhat preoccupied with work when they are away

• 93% feel somewhat overwhelmed by the volume of work 

“With the advent of COVID-19, there’s no question that stress is on the rise,” Fleming said. “I see that in our leaders and our colleagues as everybody tries to get comfortable and level-set with working at the office and working at home.”

Fleming added that one of his most significant responsibilities as a leader is helping his colleagues cope with this new environment and the resulting mental health issues. “It used to be you could separate work from home,” he said, “but I never believed in that. I think we bring our whole selves to our work, and we can help each other a lot better when we understand each other.”

Build in a buffer

Work is an important part of our lives and sometimes our identities. The pressure to perform and to be available 24/7 can be especially stressful when people are your business. Elliot LePoidevin, Wisconsin President and CEO, said, “My theory is that everybody started sprinting when COVID-19 hit, and we never slowed down. There’s an expectation that we’re working all the time.” 

While responding to client concerns and emergencies is certainly important, so is the ability to take a break from them. LePoidevin’s strategy is to put a buffer between home and work, whether it’s taking a few minutes to read before leaving the office or listening to a podcast during his commute.

Pre-COVID, Dakotas CEO Steve Vlk’s commute was 30 minutes. Now it’s seven, which means he has to be much more disciplined about unplugging from work. “The first inclination is to jump when your phone dings, but I’m getting better at acknowledging that constantly being available is outside of my work-life balance,” he said. He added that establishing a boundary is necessary for his physical health, but more importantly, it sets an example for others in the organization.

Carol Barnett, CEO of MMA’s Cline Wood office, has been an early riser her entire life, starting work most days at 5 am. She admits to having a hard time unplugging from work, but she says a ritual helps her create some separation. She makes a point to close her office door and leave work behind. “I take that break and do what I need to relax.”

Focus on culture 

Vlk works to create a culture that reflects the organization’s values. “I think about culture every day,” he says. “If we grow our talent as passionately as we work to grow our business, we’ll be successful.” He also strives to bring the team together to accomplish goals in a way that is fun and meaningful.

He calls this “followership,” a leadership concept that focuses on active participation in team’s success. For Vlk, it’s about being transparent, vulnerable, and compassionate. It also means understanding people are human beings who have lives outside of work.

Vlk said one of his biggest challenges is helping people understand their work is important, but to also provide grace to be human and imperfect and encourage each other to make mistakes and learn from them. When colleagues come to him in times of stress, Vlk works with them to get back to balance, helping them bring their best to work and to be their best at home. This, he says, is what MMA’s culture is all about.

Find an “attitude buddy”

A common thread among our conversations with these leaders was this: they all have trusted confidants, colleagues, or advisors to whom they can turn for help or advice. And more importantly, they lean on the people in their circles. 

When Fleming and his long-time friend and business partner, Bill Jeatran, were new leaders, they enlisted the help of a consultant who taught their team about having an attitude buddy. Fleming said that person could be a coworker, even someone who reports to you, but a person you trust and who will hold your conversations in confidence. “Sometimes, you just need to vent, and our buddy can help us think more clearly,” he said.

LePoidevin talks to his wife, who provides a “totally outside the box” perspective on his work situations. He is also in a networking group with professional colleagues who meet for three hours a month to solve challenges together.

St. Louis President Lynda Baris has a trusted circle, which sometimes includes her dog. “It’s important to have a safe space and someone to talk to,” she said. “I tell them they don’t have to say anything or solve my problem. I just want them to listen.”

Move your body

Physical movement releases endorphins in the brain, boosting dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels, which affect focus and attention. In addition to helping us feel better, physical movement helps make our brains work better.

Cathie Ruffner, Senior Vice President of Human Services, takes her dog for a walk. Vlk strolls around the office and converses with coworkers about what is happening in their lives. Baris gets on the treadmill and runs as fast as she can.

You can release endorphins by: 

• Dancing and singing through a song from your playlist.

• Playing a quick game of tag or hide-and-seek with your children.

• Laughing at a podcast, watching a comedy show, or reading “dad jokes.”

• Getting some sun. In addition to providing a dose of vitamin D, just 15 minutes in the sun (with sunscreen) can boost serotonin and melatonin. 

• Going for a “walking meeting” with a colleague or your team.

• Taking time for a Moment of Zen.

• Performing a random act of kindness.

Tim said, “It used to be you could separate work from home, but I never believed in that. I think we bring our whole selves to our work, and we can help each other a lot better when we understand each other.” 


It has been said that one of our greatest strengths is the freedom to choose how we respond to the situations of life. But when tensions are high, that freedom can seem slightly—or very far—out of reach.

To tap into our ability to choose our reaction, Ruffner suggests taking an “adult time out” to gather your thoughts in stressful situations. “Try not to react,” she said. “Our nature can be to react, but try to take it in. Understand what it is and why it’s happening, and then examine your options and alternatives.” 

Another way to pause is through meditation, a practice Fleming identifies as the “secret sauce” (along with faith and prayer) to manage his stress level and show up intentionally each day. Meditation is a practice that can resonate with people from various backgrounds and traditions.

Barnett relaxes and gets out of “work mode” by focusing on water. She lives in a house that looks out onto a lake, and at the end of the day she sits and reflects. “Water has always had a calming effect on me,” she said.

Many cultures use water in meditative practices, and listening to the sounds of water, watching the waves or ripples, or being in water are all techniques that can help ease stress and produce calm.

Reach out and reach up

When their team members come to them in need of advice or support, our leaders offer encouragement, ask questions, and share wisdom.

LePoidevin helps them make a plan: “We got this. You got this. Let’s get it out of your head and into a plan.” Fleming helps them find perspective: “Bill [Jeatran] talks about the ‘long game.’ That puts things into perspective. He has always encouraged us to enjoy the ride and to be joyful for every day with all the challenges, obstacles, and rewards. And pursue intellectual curiosity when interacting with your clients, colleagues, and friends to gain their wisdom.”

Ruffner helps them prioritize: “Let’s talk about it. What’s on your mind? What can we do? How can we prioritize? What do you need?” 

Baris helps them find purpose: “If you can find purpose in the things you do every day, it can help you see the reason for what you’re doing and that can give you energy to keep moving ahead.”

Vlk shows them he cares: “You’re not alone. I’m here with you. What can I do to ease your burden? What can I take off your plate that will help you in the next 24 hours? How do we get back to balance?”

Barnett talks about mindset: “Stress is what you do with it. Find your channel. Find whatever it is that helps you release and shift your mindset to what matters most.”

MMA can help 

If life is off balance for you or your employees, MMA’s Dimensions of well-being playbooks can help with areas such as mental, social, physical, and financial health. Reach out to your MMA representative for more.


This blog is not intended to be taken as advice regarding any individual situation and should not be relied upon as such. Marsh & McLennan Agency LLC shall have no obligation to update this publication and shall have no liability to you or any other party arising out of this publication or any matter contained herein.