Helping executives deal with stress

Work-related stress is a constant for many managers Reuters

Managers and stress became a hot topic in Switzerland in 2013 following the suicides of two prominent company executives. Both treating and preventing stress have become big business as the number of stressed executives has increased over the years.

This content was published on December 10, 2013 - 11:00

Occupational stress was first recognised as a problem in the 1960s, but it took a while to become mainstream. “Now companies approach us and say, ‘Can you give us advice?’” says Norbert Semmer of the University of Bern’s Institute for Psychology. “That would have been almost impossible 30 years ago.”

A variety of factors are seen as contributing to managers’ stress: from the globalisation of business and 24-hour availability to separation from the family to industry scandals, personality clashes and the expectations of stakeholders.

“Sometimes people – especially men – become insensitive to early signs of stress building up, like not being able to sleep well, which is a very important sign,” says Semmer.  “One of the things I teach managers is: listen to your own signals.”

“I had people in interviews who said, ‘I’m not stressed at all’. And ten minutes later the same people would tell me about nights when they would wake up sweating and ruminating about work-related problems.”

An imbalance between effort and rewards can lead to burnout, according to Semmer. The prime resources that help employees deal with stress are job control – having a say about the activities you perform and the conditions under which you work – and social support.

But talking about stress isn’t always easy, Semmer notes, and receiving social support “may have the connotation of ‘you are not competent enough’. Plus, the positive side – having all that success – is a very important motivator, so people start ignoring their symptoms.”

The tipping point

Rudolf Wötzel knows about stress first hand. The former investment banker, who oversaw the sale of Swiss airlines to Lufthansa, suffered a major crisis in his early 40s.

Wötzel woke up nights with panic attacks and a racing pulse. His immune system broke down. He had serious back problems. He spent more than four years “moving in circles” and hiding the fact that he wasn’t okay.

“I felt somehow on the wrong track with my whole life,” he says. “Running for recognition, running for titles, for bonuses, and somehow lacking the more vital parts of life, such as relationships, family life, self-fulfilment, a purpose in life.”

Finally, after suffering a “physical and mental breakdown”, Wötzel did what many stressed managers are afraid to do: he gave up. He quit his high-paying, high-performance job and set out to walk from Salzburg to Nice.

“I got so much insight into the way I function, the way I’m motivated,” he says. Now he owns and operates an inn in canton Graubünden and counsels managers who are undergoing personal crises like he did.

Addressing the problem

Wötzel says he helps his clients “to step out of the situation and look at themselves, to make them aware that they have other options.” He also helps them see that “to fix the problem you don’t need to work on the structure around you – you need to work inside you”. 

For many people this is not intuitive. “Managers in leading positions, when in crisis, tend to move into being completely brain driven,” Wötzel says. “If you open people up to their feelings, sentiments, emotions, senses, you allow them to regain autonomy and control over their life.”

It’s no wonder that treating stress and burnout have become big business, with everyone from private clinics to pharmaceutical companies offering relief.

Company support

Dealing with stressed executives is a delicate issue for companies. Switzerland’s biggest telecommunications company, Swisscom, like many major employers, offers support to help its managers avoid stress. This includes coaching on personnel issues, workshops on health promotion and illness prevention, access to a social advisory service, a paid sabbatical every five years and flexible working hours.

And “although modern communication tools allow us to read and respond to business e-mail and documents at any time and in any location, there is absolutely no expectation that employees work in their free time,” says spokesman Carsten Roetz.

The fact that help is offered doesn’t mean that it will be accepted, however. Wötzel recalls his own situation: “I didn’t know there was something in place like that, and if I had, I wouldn’t have asked for it. If you’re still in that mental mode of trying to fight on, you refuse to even look at those things.”

In Wötzel’s opinion, preparing workers for stress and burnout should start when they begin their career. Now, “it’s like you’re living for 20 years in a house and fire breaks out and you don’t even know where the fire extinguisher is.”

Already back in 2005, in a study examining the work-family balance of 143 top managers at an international company in Switzerland, Semmer and his University of Bern co-authors concluded: “What is needed is the development of a work culture that discusses the limits of endurance, without making them a sign of insufficient competence.”

Designing people-friendly companies

One organisation trying to do that is the Great Place to Work Institute, a global research, consulting and training firm with an office in Zurich. It says it “helps organisations identify, create and sustain great workplaces through the development of high-trust workplace cultures”.

In 2012, the institute awarded the American multinational ebay (which has its European headquarters in Bern) third place for Best Companies to Work For in Switzerland.

Lauren Saginaw is a young manager who has worked for ebay for six years. She’s one of a select group of employees chosen for a rotational leadership programme aimed at developing talent in finance. Recently promoted to manager of European business development, based in Zurich, Saginaw works 12-hour days and travels some 50 days a year.

Like Swisscom, ebay offers a month-long sabbatical after five years of service. Saginaw spent her time in Japan. “It gave me a lot of perspective on what is important and helped me decompress a bit,” she says.

But ultimately, for Saginaw – as for many managers – stress comes with the job, and shows no signs of abating.

“I work with executives, and the work that I do needs to be outstanding day-in and day-out,” she says.

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