Nov 1 / Anna Miley

Managing the stressors of political life

Stressors of political life

Politics by its nature is a stressful environment, with both universal and unique sources of stress in political life. Politicians must be able to cope with shifting demands, long work hours, high-pressure situations, constant scrutiny, and high levels of mistrust. Although many politicians have a high tolerance for stress there is growing interest in the wellbeing and psychological health of our leaders and to better understand the unique stressors they face.

After all, it must be considered that the mental health of those we elect to represent us and make decisions on our behalf not only affects their capacity to do their job but also the outcomes of their decisions. Recent research, Governing under Pressure? The Mental Wellbeing of Politicians (Flinders et al) describes nine main stressors that impact political leaders which fall into three categories: cultural, intuitional, and individual. 
This framework proposed by Flinders and co-authors highlights the complex and multiple sources of stress political leaders face. Local councillors are no exception to these stressors and in fact encounter an additional unique stressor of living and working near the constituents that they represent. 

Cultural stressors

Politics has a high-expectation, low trust culture which is intensified by relentless public scrutiny. Additionally, there can be a dissonance between a leader’s personal views and politically required views, carrying a potential personal and professional toll. 

Institutional pressures

The combative and highly procedural environment of politics is amplified by the temporal nature of the electoral cycle – there is not a lot of time or capacity for politicians to get done what they said they would. Crisis management although a very necessary part of political leadership is an additional responsibility on top of already high daily demands. 

Individual pressures

Individuals’ lifestyles are dramatically impacted by long work hours with limited capacity to control their time and energy demands. The skill set of a politician is uniquely broad and there is a lack of training and support to increase competence. 

Stress and performance

The stress response is a normal physiological response to challenging or new situations or any kind of pressure, demand, or threat – otherwise known as stressors. These pressures may not just be due to our external environment but also the demands we place on ourselves. The brain’s response to stress helps us to focus, maintain motivation and think quickly, like during a Council meeting or to allow you to respond appropriately to a confrontational constituent. However, being under high-level, constant, and long-term stress takes a toll on our mental and physical health. 

Although people elected to public office are likely able to function well in high-pressure situations, the human body is unable to sustain peak performance under stress for long periods. Stress-overload leads to fatigue and often maladaptive coping strategies such as poor eating, excessive alcohol consumption and diminished time-management impacting relationships. For personal and professional sustainability, we encourage councillors to actively include stress-management strategies in their daily and weekly schedules. 

Seven tips for managing stress to stay well and happy in life and leadership 

As a political leader, you are a lot like a high-performance athlete – performing under pressure and high scrutiny. Just like a high-performance athlete you need to ensure your schedule includes rest and recovery. There are many things that help relieve and mitigate chronic stress. Here is a list of some of our favourites: 

5-8 hours of quality sleep per night 

We don’t all need 8 hours of sleep per night but the sleep we do get does need to be sound for the body and mind to recuperate from the rigours of the day. Consider a simple pre-bedtime routine to help wind down and aim to get into bed at the same time each night. 

Regular exercise and eating a nutritious diet

Yes these are obvious but they are often the first things to be de-prioritised! There are many fantastic digital tools to support adherence to exercise and good eating. Some are paid subscriptions but many are free to access. 

Connecting to your life and leadership purpose

In the intensity of juggling employment, personal life and your civic role your passion can be diminished. Regularly reflecting on your hopes for your community can help to reinvigorate you. Even keeping a notebook by your bed, in your bag or on your desk to jot down ideas and tasks as they pop into your mind. You can even use the voice memo feature on your phone to record ideas as they come to mind. 

Talking regularly to trusted people  

It is well documented that talking about our worries allows us to get perspective and often see new ways forward that are not apparent when we are internally ruminating. At Locale Learning we encourage councillors to have both a cheerleader group – trusted people who will provide you with positive encouragement no matter what. And a challenge group – trusted people who will give you useful feedback. 

Taking regular vacations 

Even short trips away, for example, a couple of weekends away throughout the year can help reduce stress and improve your productivity on your return. Make sure you schedule your mini-breaks ahead of time so that they actually happen! 

Connecting to nature regularly

For example, gardening, hiking or spending time with pets. There is a significant amount of research to show the physiological and psychological benefits of nature immersion. 

Practising mindfulness

And our favourite...practising mindfulness, so it becomes a superpower. Mindfulness involves actively paying attention to an experience from a vantage point of non-judgmental awareness. It is a way of staying focused in the present moment without getting caught up in your thoughts or emotional reactions. It does not change reality but rather how we are experiencing it. Research has linked regular mindfulness practice with reduced perceived stress and increased coping in stressful situations. 
There is a growing body of research to show that political leaders face both universal and unique stressors. The high-pressure environment of politics at all levels of government means our elected representatives are at high risk of stress-related burnout and ill-health. Local councillors are have an additional unique stressor of living and working within the communities that they are representing, possibly leading to closer scrutiny by constituents. 

We believe elected leaders are like high-performance athletes and need to schedule their time accordingly with clearly defined rest and recovery time to mitigate stress and avoid burnout.  

We provide specific mindfulness and stress performance coaching at Locale Learning with our resident mindset and plitical wellbeing coach, Anna Miley.

Contact us at to find out more about the support we can offer you in this space. 

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