The Stress Epidemic

Dec. 21, 2004
Its costing industry $20 billion annually

An old bromide says: "Worry kills more CEOs than work, because more CEOs worry than work." Work and worry, however, are becoming synonymous. Stress is virtually unavoidable. Rightsizing and downsizing programs abound. Acquisitions and divestitures are multiplying. Reengineering and reinventing companies are daily occurrences. And the opportunities (or impositions) of new technologies are taking a terrible toll among executives and the rank and file alike. These pressures -- often coupled with such family anxieties as financial, emotional, generational, social, and health problems -- make for a growing number of tense and testy men and women among our employees. Executive Health Examiners tell us that 25% of the thousands of businessmen and businesswomen they study each year show evidence of stress and stress effects. About 5% are serious enough to require professional help. Stress-related illnesses run the gamut from mild irritability to debilitating depression. But stress has an insidious multiplying effect, because it can trigger a host of other disorders including heart disease, hypertension, ulcers, and colitis. It can also lead to alcoholism, drug addiction, and emotional breakdown. Almost everyone you or I know is tense or uptight over one thing or another. Ive had my tense days at the office, and so have you. I have been the cause of other peoples anxieties, as you probably have. The CEO is ultimately the focal point of all company stress. Some is the result of the CEOs style or personality, some the result of his or her agenda, and some the result of his or her policies. Others are inherited from the board, shareholders, subordinates, and the media. But, clearly, the bulk of it comes from innuendo, rumor, lack of understanding, and from the mere prestige of the Corner Office. Change is the villain responsible for a good deal of company stress. Loss of a job or fear of a potential loss of a job; a change in management or location; or a merger, a divestiture, or even an acquisition can cause angst. But not all stress is bad. Stress can save jobs. It can force positive changes. It can compel the development of new products. And stress is the basic ingredient of competition. The mark of a great CEO, in my opinion, is how he or she copes with stress. Richard Proctor of Wake Forest Universitys Bowman Gray School of Medicine developed this list of "Ten Stress Signals You Should Heed," which appeared in Coping With Executive Stress by Executive Health Examiners:

  • Are you finding yourself restless and seemingly unable to relax?
  • Are you irritable and given to anger if things dont go your way?
  • Do you have periods of prolonged or excessive fatigue?
  • Do you have concentration difficulty?
  • Have you lost interest in your usual recreational activities?
  • Are you worried about things that worry cant help?
  • Are you working excessively, even if not entirely effectively?
  • Are you taking more and more work home?
  • Are you smoking more? Drinking more?
  • Do you suspect now and again that you are losing, or have lost, perspective on whats really important in job and family areas, and maybe in life?
The following advice has been helpful to me in managing stress; it may work for you as well:
  • First and foremost, stay healthy. Watch your diet. Exercise.
  • Marry the right spouse. Few problems at home will give you fewer problems at the office.
  • Work you enjoy wont kill you no matter how many hours you spend doing it.
  • Dont manage. Lead.
  • Dont try to solve every problem immediately. Postpone. Prioritize.
  • Listen. Youll learn.
  • Communication eliminates frustration.
  • Its better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Ordinary people will produce extraordinary results if they are informed.
  • It doesnt help to do something well if its not worth doing in the first place.
  • Be flexible. Remember, a mule has neither pride of ancestry nor hope of posterity.
  • You cant eliminate change, but you can manage it. Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Publishing Inc. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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