Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 9 September 2013

Stressful news about executive stress

The news is that performance anxiety and depression are increasing and that medication is no longer going to help. Executive angst is taking on new dimensions, highlighted by several high-profile deaths. But where did this all start?

Several high profile deaths have underlined the news that performance anxiety and depression are increasing and that medication is no longer helping. In Switzerland, that land of calm lakes and protective mountains, the death of Zurich Insurance’s Pierre Wauthier (the company’s finance director) was recently reported. In his suicide note he cited his tough CEO Josef Ackerman’s unreasonable expectations as the cause of his depression. A month earlier, the CEO of Swisscom, Carsten Schloter, also died of apparent suicide. In London, Bank of America Merrill Lynch reported the death of executive trainee Moritz Erhardt, who was said to have worked for 72 hours without sleep. Competition, even at the intern level, is relentless, it seems.

In South Africa, according to a recent report based on research by Grant Thornton, executives are experiencing increasing amounts of stress. Skills shortages and red tape were mentioned in the report as causes of executives failing to meet performance targets.

Life in the executive fast lane is now becoming even more competitive. Since the financial collapse in 2008, and the ripple effect of problems in the economy, people have to work much harder. More executives are failing to create the “balanced life” for themselves, which has become such a holy grail of our times. Riding on rapidly developing and ubiquitous technology, life is a 24-hour-a-day business. There is little time for “switching off” or having the rest and recovery time any senior executive needs for “refuelling”.

Evidence of executive lives being out of sync is seen at many levels. Sexual abuse cases in business are increasing. There is more corruption and financial mismanagement. Fractured family relationships and marital breakdowns have become endemic. Unhealthy lifestyles, rife with poor diet and alcohol abuse, are common. Living in the “age of distraction” people now have to cope with the constant stream of emails, voicemails and the virulent twittersphere. There is little time for exercise and rarely time for reflection


But where did this all start?

One starting point is the aggressive levels of business competitiveness. Everyone has to do better just to stay in the game. Stakeholders believe that the business must grow and increase on the performance of last year. Technology enables the measurement of performance with terrifying accuracy. Month after month, quarter after quarter the executive’s head is on the block. The stranglehold for performance becomes ever tighter as shareholder activism colludes with the media to reveal perceived poor performance and to demand better returns. The harder life becomes for the CEO the more his pressure and stress are passed down the chain of command to everyone in his line of sight. Some become unreasonably tough on themselves and set personal standards that are punishing.

It’s ironic that our eagerness to have a balanced life and to do well is the cause of even more stress. Personal stress adds to work stress. This is a frenetic age increasingly characterized by pathological levels of drive to achieve self-improvement. The trouble is that every book or piece of advice on improving one’s self necessarily requires one to define the inadequacy or problem that is to be improved. In the process we have developed often-debilitating self-criticism and toxic comparison shame. When compared to the ideal people who populate the media, we mortals always fall short. The self-help industry survives by telling us what the ideal looks like and then puts the heel in by showing us how to compare our flawed selves with the heroes.

A further irony is that executive coaching is not working for many of the people at the top end, who often need it most. A recent study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that while executives said they would welcome the opportunity of being coached, they do not actively seek it out. Stephen Miles from the Miles Partnership in London speculates that coaching is seen as being “remedial” and not something that enhances performance. On top of the stress there is also self-sufficient executive pride.

“With many expectations placed upon them, senior executives are under great pressure,” states Tony Grant, director of Coaching Psychology at the University of Sydney and adjunct lecturer for Executive Programs at the Australian School of Business. “Executives work very hard, long hours, they have numerous stakeholders to satisfy and the work they do is frequently at odds with their personal values and beliefs. They sacrifice their personal relationships with their partners and children – and even with themselves – in the pursuit of organisational excellence. And they have to deal with a lot of difficult people on a daily basis while chasing multiple, competing goals. No wonder they get stressed!”

In the 60s and 70s, executives in the US famously went out for three martini lunches and took regular doses of Valium to steady themselves. Valium was copied by a raft of me-too drugs like Prozac and Librium because the market was expanding dramatically and companies like Roche were making a fortune out of stress.

Now we are told that Big Pharma is withdrawing from the psychotropic drug space because the evidence is that no significant new developments have taken place in psychiatric research for 50 years and additional evidence on the efficacy of established drugs has become shaky. In recent clinical trials the drugs most commonly prescribed were found to be no more effective than placebos. At the 2011 meeting of the American Society for Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, interest in and sponsorship of psychotropic drugs declined dramatically.

With little help or support, it seems that stressed executives are now left largely to their own devices. Well-meaning friends and relatives, who may encourage those who are stressed out to slow down and take a break, are unlikely to be heard. It’s like shouting at a drowning man to swim harder.

There are no clever answers to the problem, but a hint or two exists in a report published many years ago in 1981 in the Air University Review by two researchers, Troxler and Wetzler, who were working with the American armed forces to address executive stress. Among their comments, some of which now sound almost quaint, there may be advice for bosses. “The following were listed as the main causes of job stress: heavy workloads with the time pressure of unrealistic deadlines, conflicting personal goals and supervisor’s goals, reward systems not based on job performance, lack of feedback, responsibility without authority and uncertainty about the future of the organisation”. DM



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