Resources: Blog Post

August 10, 2016

The Steaming Cup

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From time to time we all come across the latest consulting firm research letting us know what is keeping CEOs awake at night. When in the CHRO seat, we usually know first-hand what those worries are. However, the studies do consistently reinforce the challenges that CEOs grapple with, so many of which are pretty uniform e.g. profitability, talent, technology, and cyber-security. In one organization I have worked, the CEO made it abundantly clear to the executive team that if he was waking up in a sweat at night, he expected them to be losing sleep too. Some of you might automatically reflex to identify a leader with narcissistic tendencies, since “misery likes company.” However, in this particular case, he was operating from a different axiom, which was, “a problem shared is a problem halved.” Interestingly there is some scientific evidence that talking with a colleague who shares the same emotional state will lighten the load, decrease stress and help improve productivity. In effect, that is one of the real benefits to peer group networks, where sufficient trust is built between senior professionals that they can, and do, share those personal professional issues that are troubling them.

There are numerous studies which reveal what we all know – people are working longer and harder. Stress levels are increasing and in our role as confidants to managers, some confess to feeling “burnt out,” but will not voice it for fear of being labelled as a “softie” – “can’t handle the pressure, eh!” In HR, the complex question we must struggle with is “what is a reasonable workload,” and when should we step in and draw the line. Many CEOs work, what many employees would classify as, insane hours. For them a balanced work/life is just not feasible, but it is “accepted” as part of the job. So it is for many in the executive suite too. Most CEOs expect his/her executives to be working as hard as they are. In some cases, face time is still the norm and a non-negotiable. It reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George leaves his jacket and coat visibly hanging in the office with a steaming coffee cup in the middle of the desk, at all hours of the day and night. His boss, Mr. Steinbrenner (NY Yankees) is left with the impression that George is a totally devoted and committed employee. It is laughable, and while there are many executives who simply accept his/her fate, there are others, like George, who undertake different forms of gamesmanship to appease CEO demands. But if finding more hours in the day is simply not an option, how can we find practical ways of preventing burn out, knowing that stress tolerance varies from person to person. I vividly remember one CFO who worked in a highly charged, complex, demanding organization and he confessed that it took him two years following retirement to fully decompress from the stress he had been under for years. During his time in the role, his stomach was constantly knotted, but he withstood it without truly understanding the effects of the treadmill he was on, and how much he had missed out on things he valued and enjoyed. I asked him whether he would have listened to some HR type telling him to “get some balance in his life.” Since the answer was “no,” many of us simply tolerate the fact that this is part of being an executive.

Stress on the job is also dependent on whether you love the work you do. I am sure we have colleagues today that seem to work very long hours, including weekends. Over the years, I have spoken to some of them and expressed concern that they are spending so much time in the office. I am no longer surprised to find that some people are so totally immersed in the work they do, and the value it brings to the organization, that they actually thrive in doing it. However, statistics inform us that only 25% of our workforce truly loves the work they do, and sometimes that is because of the unremitting pressure to produce and perform. But isnít it time that we stop letting the mantra of ďonly the tough surviveĒ be voiced. Wellness programs have proven to only marginally help and they simply scratch the surface of the problem. Arenít we smart enough to start evaluating people on the value they bring by measuring meaningful results, and not whether they are working 9-5. Isnít productivity enhanced when our employees stop being over-stressed, where a good nightís sleep free from constant worry is obtainable, where spouses/family have enough time to devote to enjoying their relationships? Could anger and depression be reduced if we start to think about the essence of each job, rather than rote job descriptions that we follow blindly? There is no doubt exercise, diet, and meditation can help to alleviate stress and help build resiliency under pressure. But perhaps there is one more consideration that we fail to give enough attention, and that is the world around us. When we are so narrowly focused on the day job because it consumes all our time, what experiences are we missing by not being involved in the local community, by not being curious about new research in various professional fields, about new technologies being utilized outside our regular domains? Volunteering experiences, specialized knowledge, and networks broaden our outlook and our mindsets. CEOs complain about the lack of innovation, but could some of that be because we are consumed by work that constricts and demotivates us. Is it time to start to questioning the inherent belief systems that manifest themselves in organizations today, that working insane hours is the best way to succeed? Granted, working smarter, and not harder, is easier said than done, but changing the conversations, and challenging operating assumptions, might be a good place to start.


Ian Hendry headshopt

Ian Hendry†is the president of the Strategic Capability Network. In his Morning Musings, he provides insight on issues facing todayís business leaders and looks at subject matter related to upcoming SCNetwork events. He is also VP HR & Administration at Interac†Association.

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