Paying The Price – The high cost of executive success

When executive stress costs money, whether through decreased productivity, lowered morale or increased absenteeism, the organisation pays attention. Likewise, business reluctantly acknowledges stress when the Government forces it to, as with the pending Health & Safety in Employment Amendment Bill.

But until recently, when chief executive’s marriage fell apart, or her teenage son was caught joyriding late at night, it was no business of business. That was, of course, before the arrival of “work-life balance” – the label that means it’s no longer sissy, or worse, disloyal, to put the family first now and then.

Five years ago, when America’s Fortune magazine interviewed top CEOs on the subject of executives seeking work-life balance, the prevailing attitude was: “Stop whining and get back to work.” Now, as the balance bandwagon gathers momentum, the executive stress industry – coaches, consultants, industrial psychologists, corporate physicians, even corporate masseurs – is gearing up for big increase in business, encouraged by statistics that quantify the real threat posed to families by work pressure.

A survey of 5000 managers in Britain, released last year, revealed that 86 percent believe the long hours they work damage their relationships with their children, and 79 percent that they damage the relationship with their partner. poll by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers revealed that divorce among executives is on the increase, in part because it has lost its stigma among the business elite. Preoccupation with work was cited as one of the top four causes of divorce.

NZIM survey
In New Zealand, the Institute of Management’s survey on stress found that “sufficient time for personal or family life” ranked second-highest among the attributes considered of “utmost importance” in the ideal job. Auckland recruitment company Pohlen Kean is currently conducting research as part of study led by its British affiliate Abora-Global. Called Work and Life Balance, the survey asks managers about workload and stress levels. In last year’s study, conducted across 24 countries, 67 percent said that workplace stress affected their family time, and 90 percent said work addiction is common among top managers.

Link that to research in the US, where the children of self-described workaholics were found to have significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety than children of non-workaholic parents, and where workaholics themselves evidenced more destructive behaviour – alcohol abuse, extramarital affairs, stress-related illnesses – and the future for the executive family looks bleak.

So the talk of balance – usually meaning more time with family, and almost inevitably meaning less time in the office – is encouraging. Or it would be, were it not in direct conflict with the social, demographic and commercial trends that are conspiring to heap more pressure on our executives.

Work compression
Andrew Barney, of Massey University’s department of management and international business, points to “work compression” as key factor in the increased stress encountered at the office. In the past, people spent uniform amount of time at work – 40 hours week – from age 16 to 65. Now they enter the workforce much later, in their early to mid-20s, and reach top executive level far sooner in their career – in their 40s, 30s, sometimes even their 20s. People also put off having children until later in life so, more often than not, their career climb occurs at the same time as they start family.

“At the point at which they’re experiencing peak workplace demand, they’re also experiencing peak family demand,” says Barney. The problem is compounded by the trend for men to choose partners with similar intellectual and professional capabilities. Historically, says Barney, “at the very top echelons, the 90- to 100-hour-a-week executive had wife at home. Now, they’re getting into high stress positions at the same time as they have family, and they marry women who want the same thing [career-wise] as they do. There are very few men who want to play wife, and that’s even more stressful.”

Barney believes that New Zealand’s declining economic status has not been matched by lowering in our lifestyle expectations – therefore we have to work harder to attain the same lifestyle. “In culture of working harder, executives have to be seen to be putting in as many hours as their staff.”

A US survey of chief financial officers revealed that respondents worked on average eight hours each weekend, with 10 percent working 15 hours or more. And the Institute of Management in Britain found that 75 percent of managers keep in touch with the office while they are away on holiday, with mobile phones and laptop computers making it easier to do so. The Abora-Global survey found that executives in the 35-45 age group worked longer hours than any other, and the higher up the ladder, the more hours worked.

As the pressure of work increases, so does social pressure on executives to find that elusive balance, especially on fathers to “be there” for their children. But management guru Tom Peters describes those who have risen to the top as having “given up family vacations, Little League games, birthday dinners, evenings, weekends, lunch hours, gardening, reading, movies and most other pastimes”.

Marriages suffer
Inevitably, marriages suffer. study of World Bank employees found that the spouses of executives who travelled internationally on business at least four times year were more likely than others to file medical insurance claims for mental healthcare, and were particularly likely to have stress-related psychological problems. They were three times more likely to be diagnosed with stress-related disorder than spouses of non-travellers.

Identifying the problem doesn’t mean it is easy to address. One difficulty is that an ideal balance for which all executives should strive cannot be defined – it doesn’t exist. How well an executive manages the conflicting demands of work and family varies according to the person, says Trevor Laurence, managing director of business coaching consultancy The Experiential Training Company (ETC), who works with number senior executives.

“Some people are very savvy about how to balance work and life, others are not.” It comes down to individual makeup, stage of life (both career and family) and the internal and external conflicts being faced.

Laurence identifies two stages where executive stress is likely to hit families hard: the late 30s or early 40s, when people in the corporate world wonder if they might be better off out on their own (“They end up re-evaluating personal relationships at the same time”); and executives in their 50s, who are wondering how to provide for the future and are looking at options to extend their working life or increase their savings power.

“The people who cope best are those who know their own values, their own purpose, their strengths,” says Laurence. “Life changes around them, but they have solid core.” They have supportive family and community, they eat well, rest, take holidays and often have personal faith. For couples, survival can depend on “how well they have worked out what they want in life, and how in sync they are. Otherwise long hours, strained relationships and losing focus can be both the cause and effect of what’s going on at home.”

Executives who handle stress well schedule holidays ahead and set aside time for regular exercise, family and community. Laurence believes that community activities – sports groups, the school PTS, church, scouts and so on – “give us as much meaning as work, but work has become pre-eminent”.

Balanced approach
Ross McEwan, CEO of AXA New Zealand until April this year when he took the top job at First New Zealand Securities, claims to have taken more balanced approach to his work in recent years.

He now looks on early mo

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