Everybody hurts: modern life and executive stress

Although phrases like ‘fat cats’ – and less complimentary – are probably being bandied about more in the last few years than for a couple of decades or so, recent news coverage seems to indicate that executive stress is as much a rising concern in the economy as workplace stress generally. Last week, the BBC website ran a story Executives feel the heat in challenging times. Today, The Independent upped the emotional ante in some sections of its feature article: How the City slickers lost their mojo. Starting its story around one particular City restaurant, it makes startlingly bleak reading, especially for a feature about the City – an environment in which ‘talking it up’ is most people’s expectation of the cultural norm:

No one calls the Coq D’Argent The Money Chicken any more. It’s famous for rather different reasons than laughter and cash lately. In the last few weeks, two City workers have jumped to their deaths from the bar. Four have done so since 2007.

It’s probably wrong to draw any link between the terrible decisions made by some desperately unhappy people and the wider mood around EC2, but the old Money Chicken crowd, whose humour always ranged from mawkish to black in any case, think it’s not coincidental.

“We know how they felt,” goes the line from the trading crew, and they don’t smile when the say it. The City of London is miserable.

The apparent link between the type of language an organisation wants to hear and work-related stress may not be so coincidental as the Independent’s article hints.

In another recent article, Time to talk about workplace stress, published in The Guardian on 19 October, the link was made more explicit:

But while the statistics relating to lost working days speak for themselves, companies are often reluctant to talk about mental health because of the stigma associated with it. “It’s such a taboo word,” said one contributor to the discussion. Another said: “I had to use the word ‘wellbeing’ in order to do my work with one corporation – they didn’t like ‘stress’ or ‘mental health’. The roundtable heard how one large corporation adopted the words “Feel Good Together” as the slogan for its campaign to create a healthier workforce. “We used that as a way in [to talk about mental health] because it’s less scary to our employees,” a participant said.

Other organisations have chosen a similar tack. One investment bank came up with the title of “Sharpening Your Edge” to describe a mental health and wellbeing course for its staff, the roundtable was told. “If they had called it ‘stress management’ they would have got nobody turning up,” a participant remarked.

This stigma serves to further cloud a subject that working culture often serves to push under carpets. Where words like ‘stress’ and ‘mental health’ are difficult for people to use, they are likely to seek to ascribe absences to physical rather than mental conditions. While stress does indeed have a long-proven record of physical consequences, the effect is for organisational records to record the symptoms rather than the underlying condition. This is a starting point in recognising rising stress levels within the organisation, but only where it is correctly identified and diagnosed. Identifying a rise in incidences of chronic back and neck pain, for example, will not address the issue if it is identified as relating to posture and the provision of appropriate seating. Indeed, if it weren’t potentially inappropriate, there might even be a complex joke to be mined about modifying lumbar support on The Titanic.

The missing word in this article so far is perhaps ‘sympathy’. For many, it will go against the grain of perceived common sense to sympathise with the plight of executives even during stressful and challenging times: however well meant it may have been when first uttered, ‘we’re all in this together’ is now a phrase that almost inevitably comes coated in either irony or sarcasm. (This is perhaps not helped by a recent article published by Psychology In Action, which highlighted research that showed lower levels of stress in senior positions, even if it was deemed unclear as to whether this should be attributed to promotion of candidates best able to handle stress or the ‘cushioning’ effect of their organisational status.)

Nevertheless, we all live in constraining times to differing degrees, and an ability to acknowledge this openly and maturely may be one of the best defences against undue workplace-related stress. There are many organisational leaders who rose to their current positions in happier economic times and are now having to adjust to an era of greater stakeholder pressure, reduced access to capital and balancing headcount reduction with talent retention. This, as The Independent’s article points out, requires different skills and behaviours to those that may have been assumed as essential during the current CEO’s earlier ascent.

As the focus of many organisations shifts towards organisation development initiatives and identification of resource-effective routes to growth, the inevitable change management processes will be sources of stress for many of us, regardless of our position in our organisation’s hierarchy. The manager that can not only inspire, enthuse and engage but also clearly link individual effort with organisational performance serves two helpful purposes: firstly, they stand to directly improve overall performance. Secondly, they create a cohesive and mutually-supportive team that is more likely to be compassionate and empathetic to other team members – including leaders – during times of personal stress. Doing so, however, requires openness and candour from every member of the team, and a culture in which ‘stress’ is not a reason to blame or criticise but an indication that positive action is required.

Like many aspects of organisational life where emotion may act against the interests of disclosure, this is an area where the use of a professional third party may be beneficial. As The Work Foundation noted in its 2007 report, Stress At Work (download as a PDF here):

Effective procedures for the assessment of psychosocial risk were found to be beneficial not only because they identify the potential stressors of a job and help the organisation devise methods to prevent them, but also because they are usually carried out by experts from outside the team or department, rather than by the manager. Although managers play a central role in implementing stress prevention programmes, if one of the stressors in the workplace is the existence of a poor manager this will be highlighted by the external experts in psychosocial risk, who may be health and safety auditors, occupational health officers, or human resources specialists.

For the executive feeling the pressure of time and circumstance, Derek Mowbray’s blog contains Ten tips for stress management for Executives and there’s much wisdom to them. But my favourite entry came as Tip 9 – Your Ethical Self:

Never take advantage of someone else. Instead, nurture, encourage, stimulate and support them.

Never allow harm to come to anyone. This includes harm due to stress, no matter how rotten you may be feeling.

Take decisions you can genuinely justify, even if they turn out to be the wrong ones.

Not only are these wise words in managing your own stress levels, they are also highly relevant to avoiding causing stress in others. When we are in stressed states, one of the things we require most are people whom we can trust. Don’t let the stress you are feeling drive away its own potential solution.

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