Executive Health: Understanding Stress – A prescription for workplace health

Good health, someone to love and enjoying what you do are the three prerequisites for career success and fulfilment Harvard Business School professor told this year’s Deloitte/Management magazine Top 200 Executive of the Year John Goulter after he completed an advanced executive programme at the illustrious academic institution.

The feel-good advice is far cry from the ‘work long, hard and tough’ axioms for success and happiness that many subscribed to for much of the previous century. Yet the professor’s wisdom was somewhat prophetic if you consider the emphasis now on work/life balance, life coaching, family-friendly workplace policies and other initiatives designed to maximise personal fulfilment.

For some New Zealand executives and their employees for whom years of work-induced stress has taken its toll on their health, work/life balance is yet-to-be-realised ideal. Any work satisfaction they once experienced has waned through exhaustion, burnout and general sense of having no control over their lives.

Internationally, this is common scenario. The landscape of occupational health in the United States for instance – the economy from which New Zealand takes many leads – has deteriorated with worker stress reaching critical point. American workers are now working longer and harder than at any other time in the past two decades just to maintain their standard of living. The predictable result, according to experts who took part in the Work, Stress and Health ’99 conference, is workforce more at risk than ever of psychological, physical and behavioural health problems.

With so much emphasis on the work/life balance imperative here in New Zealand in recent years, surely we offer healthier working environment than our United States counterparts? Not so – in fact we’re probably about the same.TMP Worldwide conducts range of regular online topical surveys in New Zealand, with recent one focusing on workplace conditions. The survey found work to be encroaching increasingly on the personal lives of New Zealand workers.

According to TMP the results showed that New Zealand is following the global work trend. “Businesses here have become far more competitive. Many have cut costs through such strategies as removing layers of management. Consequently employees are having to do lot more and in their own time,” noted general manager TMP Worldwide New Zealand, Denis Horner.

Many New Zealand companies continue their short-term, reactive policies, cutting costs for short-term gain which frequently means job cutting. The resulting environment of uncertainty creates further pressure for executives and staff to maintain an edge over their colleagues, perhaps through working longer hours and making themselves available to their employer at all times. One potential outcome is deteriorating staff health and wellbeing.

However the news is not all bad. Executive director of the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust (EEO) Trudie McNaughton acknowledges that there are companies at both ends of the employee-welfare spectrum in New Zealand. However she believes many New Zealand companies are now taking steps to create healthy work environments for their staff.

“Some good law firms, for instance, are attempting now to avoid the long-hours culture,” she noted. “There are many examples amongst our annual EEO Trust Work and Life Awards participants of work practices introduced to address staff welfare. The good ones [companies] seem to be getting better, while some others are as yet not making progress.”

So we have some way to go in achieving healthy workplaces, but how do we fare when employees succumb to health problems? Nothing to boast about here either it seems. In New Zealand illness demands no special consideration in the workplace. On the contrary, the rewards are reserved for those who surmount their physical limitations and prove that illness is no handicap to workplace achievement.

The Wellington division of the Cancer Society’s excellent After-Treatment Guide notes that in some workplaces, misapprehensions about cancer can cause job-related problems. The guide points out that while research shows cancer survivors are as productive on the job as other workers and are not absent any more than others, about one in four cancer survivors experiences some form of employment discrimination.

These can include:
• Refusal to hire.
• Demotion or denial of promotion.
• Not allowing time off for medical appointments.
• Suggestions that the person with cancer would be “better off” not continuing to work.

Marcia Read is CEO and co-founder of The Phobic Trust of New Zealand, not-for-profit organisation with the objectives of encouraging awareness and education of anxiety, phobic and compulsive disorders and rehabilitation of sufferers. Read points out that employer response to and support for people suffering these conditions varies. However she has found that employers can be considerably more understanding when they are better educated about the disorders.

She cites the case of 26-year-old woman who had severe depression to the point of being suicidal. The woman feared employer discrimination if they knew the true nature of her illness. Trust representative visited the employer to explain the woman’s predicament and the result was solution meeting both employer and employee’s needs.

Read cautions that such positive employer response tends to be the exception rather than the rule. However she also warns against assuming that all employee anxiety issues are caused by stress or pressures experienced in the workplace. Work is just one of the domains people operate in and stress can result from any or all aspects of person’s life. She expects that over time combination of education, support and employer understanding will improve the experience of New Zealand workers with anxiety-related health problems.

Trudie McNaughton identifies crucial issue in enabling manager to take more supportive position of staff with health problems. “If an organisation is focused narrowly on measuring success, then it’s difficult for manager to focus sufficiently on the needs of his or her employees,” she suggests. “If they [employees] are measured solely based on net profit achieved, for instance, and have no budget for alternate resourcing, employers may inadvertently harbour resentment of sorts towards sick employee and express this through employment discrimination.”

McNaughton cites the winner of the 2002 Large Organisation Award in the EEO Trust Work and Life Awards, the Auckland University of Technology (AUT), as providing fine example of New Zealand employer that has taken measures to address this issue. AUT’s managers are given the financial resources to temporarily replace staff who are taken ill.

Many other organisations are now providing range of measures to help employees remain well and to return to health when illness strikes, says McNaughton. “I strongly recommend that employers contact the Mental Health Foundation to get hold of their Well Workplaces tool kit, which is an excellent new resource to address the issues of staff health and wellbeing in the workplace.”

New Zealand employers, on average, have some way to go to achieve ‘well workplaces’ but employees also have responsibility to manage their own health. Employee health advisers frequently propose combinations of the following:
• Exercise – establish programme of regular exercise (3-4 days per week) to help relieve the stress of the day.
• Have regular medical check-ups.
• Set aside time for yourself during every day.
• Get enough rest and sleep – much anxiety arises simply from inadequate sleep.
• Reduce your caffeine intake and increase your water intake.
• Improve your diet – fast-paced life can mean lot of fast food on the run.
• Become better at managing your time – better sense of control over one’s life can help reduce stress and tensions. Good time planning at

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