By Helen Hawkes
With the emphasis on peak performance in leading companies, many executives are risking something more personal than failure.
Stress-related illness has been estimated to cost the Australian economy more than $14 billion a year in absenteeism and presenteeism, where people come to work but have low levels of productivity.
According to a 2015 report by Comcare, during 2013–14 mental stress claims accounted for 16 per cent of all workers compensation claims and 37 per cent of total claim costs, with an average total cost per claim of $342,000.
“Burnout, a form of work-related stress, is more likely to occur in middle professional levels where tight deadlines and high volume means that long hours are necessary,” says Edwin Trevor-Roberts, CEO of the national career management firm, Trevor-Roberts.
“Senior executives are also likely candidates as the expectations for accessibility and output are relentless and usually include weekends and holidays. “
For Stuart Taylor, CEO of the Resilience Institute Australia, which consults on sustainable high performance to global organisations including Shell and Price Waterhouse Coopers, it took a brain tumour for him to realise he had reached his physical and emotional limit.
“I thought I was bulletproof,” says Taylor, whose diagnosis came with a prediction, in 2002, that he would live only two and a half years.
With degrees in aeronautical engineering, IT, business and psychology, he had worked extensively in government, professional services, banking and finance, telecommunications and the manufacturing sector. Taylor had also been an Associate Director with KPMG Management and worked as a senior leader in a global corporation.
“I was working 60 hour weeks, sometimes more, to deliver,” he says. “I was putting myself in an unsustainable situation.”
He describes his illness as a “huge eye opener” that changed how he approaches work as well as his lifestyle, nutrition and mindset – helped along by 10 days at The Gawler Cancer Foundation.
“The challenge in most organisations is that there is a lot of change – mergers, disruptions, technology,” says Taylor. “And peak performance ultimately leads to burnout because you are being asked to spring 100metres 100 times.”
In a recent study conducted by the Institute with 16,000 people across 250 organisations 43.3% of all respondents ranked highly on questions relating to tiredness and fatigue, 35.7% work late into evening, 24.1% exhibit stress symptoms and 30.6% experience worry.
Psychologist and author Ellen Jackson, of Potential Psychology Services, believes personality is a factor for those who experience workplace stress/burnout with some evidence suggesting perfectionist personality are at greater risk.
“Work gets more complex as we move up the organisational chain,” she says. “Decisions are less black and white and we are interacting with a greater number of people with different interests and opinions. If you’re someone who likes to get everything ‘right’ every time this can be stressful and continued stress can lead to burnout.”
The impact of the organisational climate and the role of leadership should also not be underestimated in terms of the emotional impact and experience of employees, either positive or negative, says Jackson, who runs wellbeing training and education programs.
According to Trevor-Roberts, a major and often overlooked factor common in those with burnout is value dissonance.
“This is where an individual’s values do not align with those displayed by the majority of people in the organisation,” he says. “This quickly reduces job satisfaction, motivation, and productivity which all may lead toward burnout.”
While burnout is often thought of as the incapacitation of a person who is unable to work, far more insidious and common is the ‘working wounded’, he says. “That is those who continue to do their job but at reduced levels of productivity and morale and who start to suffer from health issues.”
The three components of burn out are emotional exhaustion, cynicism and a feeling of ineffectiveness, says Adam Carozza, director of MindWorks Australia, a Melbourne-based company “a Melbourne-based company which designs and delivers proactive employee assistance programs, tailored training programs, wellness products and consulting services.
“Being burnt out means feeling empty, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring,” he says.
“People experiencing burnout often don’t see any hope of positive change in their situations. “
To prevent burnout, he recommends starting the day with a relaxing ritual; adopting healthy eating, exercising, and sleeping habits; learning to say no to requests on your time; taking a daily break from technology; engaging in a creative activity that has nothing to do with work; and maintaining or reinstating good routine in your life including exercise, relaxation and regular sleep and wake times.
Taylor encourages high flyers to “play hard and set high expectations but rejuvenate hard”.
“What are you passionate about and how often do you make time to do it,” he asks. “What do your days look like and how much of them are about tending to others needs, with only a slither of time for yourself? “
Many executives are addicted to adrenalin, he says, and caught in an ego trap, whereas they need to master meditation, exercise and sleep, and emotional, cognitive and spiritual health to go beyond surviving the treadmill to thriving at life.
For those suffering burnout, a period of rest is critical to regain the energy and strength to continue working, says Trevor-Roberts.
“A longer term solution requires an understanding of what is causing the burnout in the first place. Is it the work itself? A lack of knowledge or skills? The people with whom one works? The company or location? Often a few minor tweaks can yield a very positive result. “
Burnout signs and symptoms
Feeling tired and drained most of the time
Disruption to sleep patterns
Lowered immunity, feeling sick a lot
Frequent headaches, back pain, muscle aches
Change in appetite or sleep habits
Loss of motivation
Increasingly cynical and negative outlook
Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment
Sense of failure and self-doubt
Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated
Detachment, feeling alone in the world
Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
Taking out your frustrations on others
Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early
Withdrawing from responsibilities
Isolating yourself from others
Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done
Credit: MindWorks Australia