Here is an excerpt from an article written by Thomas Hellwig, Caroline Rook, Elizabeth Florent-Treacy, and Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.
Illustration Credit: Cat Yu
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“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!” This had always been Michel’s response when his senior executives started “wilting under pressure” and letting him down. As the CEO of a global oil company who had risen through the ranks, Michel had faced many stressful events on off-shore rigs early in his career, and considered himself to be a tough guy with no tolerance for wimps.
But with intense media and regulatory focus on oil prices adding complexity to a current restructuring in the organization, Michel was now facing an internal crisis that he had not foreseen. His blunt approach to fixing low performers in his executive committee wasn’t working.
In the past year, two members of his team had disappeared into a “black hole” of long-term sick leave (as he thought of it). On Monday, a third person — a colleague who often picked up slack for others as well as being a source of great ideas — advised him that she had been put on leave due to stress-related burnout. Michel was annoyed with her, but also with himself. Now his team was seriously compromised. Why hadn’t he seen this coming? What was going on? He was angry about losing three team members. He himself would be ashamed of being diagnosed with burnout — or whatever it was called — and sent off for weeks of “paid vacation.”
When the head of HR met with him to discuss the situation, Michel started with his usual bluster, but it soon became apparent that he had missed many warning signals. When he heard that the developments in his team had caused a disturbing ripple effect in the company, Michel had to admit that his take-no-prisoners leadership style might be a problem.
The tipping point of distress
A recent study suggested that work-related stress in the UK in 2015-2016 accounted for 37% of all ill-health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health across all industries and professions. This study identified workload pressure (including tight deadlines and too much responsibility) and lack of managerial support as the main work factors mentioned by employees causing work-related stress. This raises a long-recognized conundrum: pressure to perform is only effective to a certain, unpredictable degree. Positive stress, also known as “eustress,” helps keep people energized and alert. However, the boundary between eustress and “distress” — harmful stress — can be quickly crossed, catching managers and employees unprepared. Everyone has a tipping point — influenced by physiological as well as psychological factors — when stress or pressure leads to decreasing performance and, if not addressed, eventually to burnout.
Although workplace stress and burnout is a hot topic, it is rarely discussed in senior executive teams. Many executives like Michel think of it as a problem that affects other, weaker, people. It is often self-diagnosed as a lack of sleep — an insignificant side effect of a high-profile executive lifestyle. But there is more to it. And given our experience the cost can be enormous.
Organizations lose substantial amounts of money because of bungled deals, misguided decisions, or cover-up of mistakes that can be linked to work-related stress.
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