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Cracking Under Pressure: Companies need to help management executives and top performers manage their stress levels to avoid burnouts that can negatively affect the bottom line.

CANADIAN UNDERWRITER.CA - FEBRUARY 1, 2012
BY CAREY-ANN OESTREICHER

Are you stressed? Have you ever thought about quitting your job and packing it all in because you feel burned out as a result of the fast pace you’re keeping? Has stress negatively affected your health? Have you had problems sleeping because your mind will not shut off, or you are worried about an upcoming meeting? Well, if you have ever felt stressed on the job enough to consider leaving the organization, you are not alone.

Stress: The Business Costs

A recent study by consulting firm Towers Watson suggests employers appear to be making false assumptions about what drives valued talent to seek opportunities elsewhere. In the study, for example, human resources professionals reported the Number 1 reason for employees to leave their organizations was due to lack of career opportunities. But employees themselves said their Number 1 reason for exiting was most often due to stress.

In the work I do within the industry in the areas of leadership development and corporate wellness, I see stress is one of the greatest factors affecting job satisfaction. This new study released from Towers Watson confirms what most of us already know: we are stressed — big time! Reducing stress at the workplace isn’t just a ‘nice to do.’ It’s a ‘need to do.’ The effects of stress on your people are likely already trickling down to your bottom line. According to Health Canada, stress on the job and work-life conflict are costing Canadian businesses between $4.5 billion and $10 billion each year.

I conducted my own research on stress, examining mostly professionals in management and top leadership positions within the insurance industry. The results echoed what the Towers Watson study found. In my own study, close to 70% of the 700 people I surveyed reported feeling so stressed in their jobs that they either have left their positions within the past year or are currently considering leaving their roles.

It is important that the industry’s leaders take note of the impact of stress on their employees — especially since the battle for top talent will be even more competitive over the next few years, given that so many individuals in the insurance industry workforce are retiring. There will be fewer individuals upon which to draw to fill those key roles in your company. So you want to keep your talent happy, as well as create or maintain your reputation as a top employer attracting new talent.

Now of course a certain amount of stress can actually improve performance. But I’m not talking about that here. The kind of stress to which I am referring is the type that hampers creativity, plays havoc with people’s moods and can tear teams apart.

Managing Stress

In my line of work, I see quite a few ‘stressed-under-the-radar’ top performers. These people are your true leaders and show great potential. They are producing great results, they are well-connected and working as hard as they can. These individuals are on your executive management team; if they are not, they soon will be. On the outside, they look like they have it all together. But because these people are so driven, (which they probably are in all areas of their lives), they are stressed and overextended. They are in great danger of facing burnout at some point. These leaders and rising stars need to be nurtured throughout their careers if you want them to go the distance at your company.

Often as individuals are promoted, they are sent on management training courses to prepare them for their new roles. Management programs can be great, but they may not include any content preparing managers and leaders to face the accelerated levels of stress that will be part of their everyday lives. If these managers and leaders are better able to manage their stress, they will be more relaxed and positive around their staff, which will positively impact your overall culture. In addition, they will be more clear-minded and focussed, making them more effective decisionmakers.

Leaders are under a lot of pressure. They really need more than the occassional vacation to unwind. They need to learn tools they can put into practice every day to help prevent burnout before it begins to take control of their careers. Your bottom line can suffer when these individuals burnout, go on stress leave or leave your organization to go somewhere else in hopes it will be a change of pace for them.

Tips for Organizations

Here are some tips to help organizations manage their employees’ stress levels.

•    Identify your top talent and ensure you are nurturing them to go the distance in their careers.

•    Create an organizational culture based on performance and not on “face-time.” Excessively managing your employees’ physical whereabouts is an additional stress on you as a leader, too.

•    Ensure you have an appropriate corporate wellness plan in place, and re-evaluate it every five years. Remember that what might have worked in the past may not be meeting employees’ needs now and could be a waste of your company’s money.

•    Hire executive coaches to work with your senior management team and those employees exhibiting great potential. This will help retain them and support their development.

•    Consider offering a health credit that would cover items such as gym memberships. Exercise has been shown in numerous studies to reduce stress.

•     Think outside the box. I have seen an increase in the number of corporate clients using meditation offerings to help reduce stress and enhance creativity.

Tips for individuals

Here are some tips to help individuals reduce their own stress levels.

•    Learn to unplug. Do not sleep in the same room as your mobile device. Have a place to put your phone before bedtime and don’t look at it again until morning.

•    Remember it’s okay to take risks and make mistakes. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

•    Get in shape to go the distance.
Exercise is a great way to manage stress levels.

•    Work with a coach and mentor to offer you the support you need.

•    Reduce multi-tasking. Once seen as an admirable characteristic for a leader to possess, multi-tasking is now starting to be seen as a habit that creates stress for individuals who are doing too much at once. It is better to place more focus on fewer tasks at a time to achieve greater success.

•     Don’t try to be all things to all people. We know this doesn’t work in business, so why do we try to do this in our own lives? The reality is, work-life balance is about determining our true priorities and delegating or outsourcing the rest.