Death spiralling and the pursuit of resilience

While there’s little doubt Helen Clark, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and other global leaders thrive
on it, growing number of New Zealand’s senior management are falling prey to chronic fatigue. So what’s the big deal?
Met chief executive with balanced lifestyle lately? If you subscribe to the views of corporate physician Dr Sven Hansen, they don’t exist, nor he adds are they really expected to. In fact, the controlled manic psychosis that most CEOs and their senior management counterparts display (high energy, huge mood swings and flights of ideas) helps them to cope within the fast changing worlds they’re operating in.
Modicums of mania may well be part of senior management’s
survival kit. But based on Hansen’s experience as director of Auckland-based executive health clinic e-Health, CEOs who don’t keep the mania in check risk slipping into what he calls the “death spiral”. In fact, he suspects that well over five percent of the top dogs running New Zealand companies fall into one of two equally lethal danger zones.
? They’ve either pushed the resistance-loop so hard they suffer from illusions of grandeur and are prime candidates for fall.
? In an attempt to keep pace, they’ve let support levels slip to the point that lost energy and confidence levels lead to lost enjoyment and ultimately depression. “To cope with the pressures of the job, chronic fatigue sufferers invariably cut back on sustaining activities to the sorry state where all sense of real meaning links back to their work,” says Hansen.
Time spent working alongside CEOs and other senior managers on risk assessment, lifestyle counselling and stress management has convinced Hansen it’s not just CEOs who are susceptible. He estimates that around 40 percent of the country’s senior management exhibit levels of chronic fatigue that directly leads to huge productivity losses.

Slipping onto the spiral
Equally damaging, he says, is the negative impact CEO’s dwindling confidence can have on customers, other external stake holders and capital market sentiment, especially for publicly listed companies. So what are the more obvious signals that CEO has slipped into the death spiral? Simple, says Hansen, erratic and unhealthy diet, too much alcohol, no exercise and little sleep.
“People are generally able to manage the cognitive work well. But the further CEOs go down the death spiral the more their business relationships tend to suffer. And in extreme cases, the gamut of the most obvious support systems, like family and friends also starts to erode.”
The real problem, says Hansen, is that while many senior managers might realise they’re slipping into the death spiral, too few bother doing anything about it. And the greater the slippage the greater the susceptibility to dysfunctional behaviour and illness. “Under these circumstances, one-off events like sudden health scare, marriage break-up, even the loss of major business deal or other external factors on the business can take CEO right over the edge.”
He says while stressful event, on its own is not necessarily bad, it’s the chronic strain of operating under continual pressure that’s dangerous. “Extreme pressure is good if the body and mind have time to recover and emerge stronger. Forgetting the recovery phase is the biggest mistake executives make.”

The bottom-line
People rarely survive at chronic states of mania or depression for very long. The ultimate impact on the individual can be fatal. But the corporate mess that casualties of the death spiral usually leave behind is equally disastrous. Hansen cites Mercury Energy’s Auckland City power crisis as grim reminder of what can happen to individuals without the necessary resistance mechanisms.
So why is this happening now more than ever? Hansen says the boardroom search for excellent operators, together with huge areas of uncertainty and hostility (accentuated through the technology shift to e-commerce) has heightened the pressure on management to deliver outstanding results.
“Hence, it’s critical executives are armoured with the requisite physical and mental resilience to cope with pressure. And much of this comes down to watching the risk factors. Unmanaged physical, intellectual and emotional fatigue provoked by an uncertain, dynamic and competitive workplace can destroy well-being, family life and business.”
In other words, not only will all work and no play make Jack and Jill dull, but in the worst case, it can kill them. “Better self awareness leads to better self management. Once CEOs have the skills to identify danger signals, they’re more likely to self correct, before things get too serious.”

Creative control
However, psychiatrist Jan Reeves, co-director at e-Health believes diet, sleep and relaxation practices, while undoubtedly fundamental to the death spiral resistance, are only half the story. She believes the key to greater resilience and competitive advantage is emotional control.
“Management just isn’t being conditioned for success. In fact, the country’s ?big boys don’t cry’ psyche has perpetuated an emotional vortex throughout much of corporate New Zealand. While women are equally affected, men are more vulnerable. They’re just not as self-aware as women when it comes to expressing their feelings,” says Reeves.
What continues to amaze Reeves is the number of corporations she counsels who undervalue emotional factors when decision making. “For years, lot of companies have bought the myth that emotions have no place in important corporate decision making. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, emotional factors typically out-weigh logic,” says Reeves.
Reeves runs introductory workshops to help senior executives recognise emotional states and then apply them in and outside the office. Her key message? Senior managers who apply emotional learning to decision making become better performers, make quicker decisions and have greater overall resistance to stress.
“Most of the people we counsel are driven and ambitious and well aware of being stressed. But there’s still lot of cynicism regarding emotional learning. They’re usually reluctant to talk about it in fear of rocking the boat or displaying perceived weakness.”
Screening questions used by Reeves to establish stress levels in executives include:
? What gets you uptight, and how often?
? Do you suffer from high mood swings?
? Do you have trouble relaxing?
? Do you have trouble delegating?
? Do you have trouble saying no?
? Have you lost motivation and concentration?
? Have clients detected lost confidence?
“Once executives recognise different emotional states, they become more aware of lifestyle imbalance. Sometimes isolating one thing that’s causing irritation can make significant difference. Among the high-risk categories are the self-employed and those with high levels of job uncertainty due to industry or corporate restructuring.”

Using emotions
Nevertheless, Hansen claims that even low-risk fatigue impacts directly on emotional competencies. Sadly, he says the whole area of valuing the measuring of emotional intelligence (EI) remains largely uncharted waters for corporate New Zealand.
“IQ seems to be an entry point only. Once in the job, studies show IQ alone determines only 4.25 percent of total performance. Studies also indicate that EI contributes to 67 percent of overall performance. And in the case of CEOs and senior leadership roles, this could account for up to 90 percent of total performance.”
“Senior management,” says Hansen, “who sense, understand and effectively apply the power of emotions as source of influence, trust and information… will be able to bring the best out in others.” Describing it as more of learned trait than skill, Hansen is convinced that EI is all about having the courage to make decisions, and perseverance i

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