Quantifying the real costs of absentee-
ism and lost productivity through illness is difficult process but is conservatively estimated at $3 billion year.
One of the big contributors to the executive health bill is stress. For many of us the word “stress” has become synonymous with worry. Yet stress is built-in survival mechanism, crucial aspect of our evolution. Stress triggers our flight-or-fight response when we perceive threat, demand or pressure upon us. It’s hormonal reaction which “tones up” the whole system leaving us ready to deal with any demanding situation from crisis in the office, to predator in the jungle. If company wants to sustain good working environment, then it needs to address executive stress and how to manage it. Stress management is not “soft” ’90s subject; it is sound commercial sense.
John McEwan, stress, grief and trauma consultant, says that learning how to manage stress is the key to healthy and more fulfilling life. “Think of surfing huge powerful wave,” explains McEwan. “Stress used correctly will enable you to go with the flow, riding the right side of the wave. If you fight against stress, battling wave after wave, then it’s only matter of time before you will be sucked under.”
It’s commonly acknowledged that managers are driven, type-A personalities who often sacrifice their personal lives before focusing on their working habits. The resulting imbalance can lead to physical and mental problems. But work doesn’t exist in isolation to the rest of our lives.
McEwan points out, that if person suffers from long-term stress, the immune system will weaken and eventually collapse. Everybody has weak point in their system and the effects of unmanaged stress will burst out and affect people differently. Next time you are in tense meeting notice how your body is reacting to mounting stress. Consciously step back and see if you recognise any of these symptoms: muscles tightening, your heart and metabolic rate increasing, rate of breathing increasing, feelings of panic and dry mouth.
For some people the early warning signs of stress will affect the cardiovascular system, causing palpitations, high blood pressure or migraines. For others it might cause respiratory problems — recurrent chest infections or asthma. McEwan adds in his worst cases people have been referred to him having had repeated surgery in an effort to deal with their problems.
Aetna Health (NZ) chief executive Steven Goldberg says studies by his company reinforce the cost in lost productivity, and show we have new age medical plague. In response, Aetna developed total ‘self help’ programme for staff welfare assistance through professional risk management, injury prevention, and rehabilitation.
New Zealand’s “hard-man” image doesn’t help managers slow down and question their values. Whether it is your own health or your employees it is worth taking stress seriously. “Absenteeism, low productivity, high staff turnover and lack of commitment to the job are some of the negative consequences of high stress in the workplace,” says Sven Hansen of e-Health, Remuera-based doctor specialising in executive stress. His intake of senior managers has doubled twice in 1999. “I am seeing managers with severe depression and other chronic symptoms. At fundamental level key drivers are losing sense of meaning in their lives as social networks, family relationships, health and hobbies are all sacrificed in order to meet target figures.”
Hansen has two strong recommendations. Firstly, find relaxation method that works for you, practise it, and stick to it; secondly, have adequate rest. Just as top athletes train hard then rest, it is essential for executives to incorporate rest into their busy lives.
If senior lawyer or accountant, for example, works an 80-hour week, driving himself to the limit, he will eventually suffer from disturbed sleep patterns, lack of concentration and probably depression.
One of the most effective ways to help yourself cope with pressured job and family commitments is to boost your immune system. Recurring colds or flu, allergies and feeling tired after long night’s rest are signs that your immune system is not operating properly. Your immune system is the first line of defence when infection strikes the body. Think of it as your interface with the environment. Like the nervous system, the immune system is capable of learning. It analyses its experiences, remembers them, and passes them on to future generations of cells. Emotional states like grief and depression can interfere with immunity, just as loving can enhance it. Avoid the temptation to use antibiotics too often. Frequent use of antibiotics will harm white blood cells eventually weakening the immune system and leaving you vulnerable to bacterial infections. Don’t have your tonsils and appendix ripped out as they play an integral role in the correct functioning of the immune system.
Typically stress management is an employee’s responsibility but Hansen warns companies of the dangers of ignoring the problem. “Companies can’t afford to leave stress management up to the individual employees. I have seen so many cases of senior executives leaving the corporate rat race for something completely different, rather than manage their stress in their existing job.” Hansen suggests talking to work colleagues and finding ways to improve communication will help employees feel more valued and effective. Many businesses are sending personnel to attend stress workshops. These routinely cover stamina techniques, diet, lifestyle and individual plans to help executives stay on top.
Looking after yourself both mentally and physically is only one half of the equation in managing stress. Protecting your company and making it comply with health and safety legislation is crucial unless your budget allows for huge sums of money for insurance claims.
Robert Brett, liability underwriter at QBE Insurance (International), says he is seeing steady rise in the amount of stress-related claims. “As stress is gradual process,” explains Brett, “companies need to make sure that they set up separate employer’s liability policies as they are not automatically covered by accident and compensation policies.” The latter usually excludes shock, fright or mental anguish. Brett cites case where former probation officer sued for overwork and stress and is now claiming $900,000.
Taking steps to protect company against stress-related claims has more far-reaching implications than might first be apparent. It isn’t just over-work that leads to claims. Stress can be created from the work environment — if the workplace is too hot or too cold, noisy, or badly lit employees may develop problems. “It is important company directors discover and plan how best to insure their company otherwise they are financially vulnerable.” In hazardous work an accident might kill an employee. If there is someone standing next to the victim then he might sue for mental anguish watching his friend die. company insured only for accident and injury would be in for nasty surprise: it would not be protected from such claim.