Pressure Pointers

AND THEN there was the CIO who toted his laptop to Walt Disney World. As the wife and kids plunged 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, he sat on a bench answering 20-odd e-mails. Fervent love of work? No -- intense pressure not to fall behind on it.

The sad part is, that individual -- who asks to remain anonymous -- is not alone. More than a few other IT executives tell similar tales of work-related stress seeping into their personal lives.

There seem to be two basic reasons for the prevailing problem: the nature of the job and the folks who step up to fill it. It takes one driven individual to accept, let alone conquer, the heavy responsibilities, impossible time demands and restrictive resources that characterise the IT profession. And then there's the ascendancy factor. IT has spent the last two decades convincing senior management that it's a major player in the business. Having closed the sale, it now finds itself struggling to meet the new, broader challenges it's won for itself. Once, all it took was technical mastery, basic interpersonal skills and a willingness to put in a few extra hours. Now, you've got to be equal parts leader, serviceperson, negotiator, diplomat and sounding board. And willing to put in a lot of extra hours.

Success does indeed breed stress. Small wonder, then, that some IT execs become bona fide workaholics, and more than a few go on to suffer serious bouts of burnout. Although it may not always come to that -- many IT executives seem to thrive in their role at the centre of the business-technology maelstrom, seeing the job as a wild and extended theme-park ride for grownups -- constant pressure can wear down even the hardiest soul. How to cope? That's what we asked Dr M Gene Ondrusek, executive coach and chief psychologist at Scripps Memorial Hospital's Centre for Executive Health in La Jolla, California. Here's what he told us about stress and IT executives.

CIO: Are IT executives more prone to workaholism and burnout than other executives? Ondrusek: The CIO position is relatively new in the business universe. The expectations for what a CIO is supposed to do and be are still in flux. Highly motivated individuals in positions that are not well defined often take on too much responsibility. That kind of person tends to overestimate his capacities and abilities and underestimate the expense. Trying to live up to unrealistic expectations is the prime set-up for burnout.

Plus, if you think of the typical technologically oriented individual, which is what a lot of CIOs are at heart, that person was trained to be technically proficient. He becomes very successful based on technical prowess and analytic expertise, and he gets promoted to manage those technologies. It's a huge jump to go from working with computers and machines to managing layers of people.

You get people in roles well outside their comfort zones. They respond by retreating to the technical domain and wind up trying to do two jobs at once.

What are the symptoms of burnout?

Symptoms typically include some combination of frustration, fatigue, lack of concentration, a sense of loss. There might also be sleep disturbance, memory problems, inability to make decisions and lack of enjoyment of normally pleasant activities. For burnout to occur, there first must be fairly high levels of enthusiasm, motivation and achievement orientation. People assume those qualities are infinite internal resources. But you can use them up if you don't regularly take steps to renew them. If you don't refill your tanks from time to time -- with rest, relaxation, exercise -- and you continually work long, long hours, you may well have a very intense career, but chances are it will also be a very brief one.

We all know our own physical stress symptoms. Some of us get upset stomachs, some of us get headaches, some sleep disturbances. Those are the gauges on our dashboard. As those things become more pervasive, more intense and more frequent, you get onto a gradient where you have to ask yourself, "How much of this am I willing to put up with?" People who try to ignore these things and just keep plugging away in spite of them are really going for short-term gains at the cost of long-term loss.

What about the causes?

Often these folks, who have a very high achievement orientation, just think they're getting lazy when they start to feel tired from constantly trying to do too much. Or they think that they're just not motivated. They start beating themselves up. Rather than recognise that what they have is a depleted gas tank, they see their fatigue as an indication that they have to work harder. So they start coming in two hours before everyone else arrives. Or they work two hours after everyone has gone. Or they do both. They end up working harder instead of smarter, and that just speeds up the depletion process.

How do you differentiate "workaholism" from a good work ethic? We appropriated the term workaholic from the chemical dependency field. To diagnose alcoholism, you ask what happens when you remove a person's access to alcohol. If they're emotionally or physically unable to live without it, chances are they're alcoholic. With workaholics, things can be similar. I may care less about how much they work, or when or why they work. I want to know what happens when I remove the opportunity to work. Can they handle that, or do they get terribly restless, fidgety, guilty? Do they have the "Thank God it's Monday" syndrome? Typically these people feel underaccomplished unless they're doing something work-related all the time.

How widespread is the problem?

It's all but impossible to quantify because so many people suffer in silence.

But I would say that it's a risk factor for all executives. The type of individual who's drawn into a competitive, high-pressure, achievement-rewarded environment is also the type to become susceptible to workaholism.

If someone asked me, "Hey Doc, can you hire some people we can really exploit?" I'd answer, "Absolutely. All I have to do is find people who have high cognitive ability and are insecure." You can exploit them all you want.

What do you recommend to someone in the later stages of burnout? Get professional help, because you won't be able to recover on your own. One of the things I do is assess whether the individual is neglecting to take care of himself.

Nobody is going to come in to me and say, "Gosh, I didn't know things like exercise and time off and relaxation were important -- thanks for telling me." People know all that. It's just that they may only be giving lip service to those things without doing them. In my capacity as an executive coach, I'm frequently the one who has to begin setting boundaries and accountability.

It's a lot like being a coach in any kind of athletic arena. I'm looking for the best outcome for the team. In these cases, that means I have to take charge of their career, briefly, to help them make decisions differently. I say, "OK, we're setting up a directive that says you're going to leave work by 6 o'clock at least two days out of the week." If you're going to generate that goal, but you really can't monitor yourself, I'll do it for you. And we'll work at what that feels like and what gets in your way. I'll often switch hats between being a coach-trainer to being a therapist-psychologist. Because to help people explore what beliefs they bring to these scenarios -- "I can't relax until I finish everything I have to do; I must constantly prove myself," those kinds of belief systems that become very rigid and pervasive -- you also have to help them look at their own beliefs with some curiosity and scepticism.

At what point would you tell someone who's not in individual treatment that he or she needs it? Generally speaking, people who begin acting against their own best interests might be at risk. Especially if they're carrying around some of the physical symptoms and acting like those are acceptable. Maybe someone is going through a bottle of antacid a day. Often, that's when I get asked to intervene.

Most often, by the way, the call doesn't come from the person with the symptoms -- it comes from that person's spouse. And that's only after they've become completely exasperated over their inability to change the situation. I'll often start working with the spouse: "Why don't you come in and we'll talk about how to live with your workaholic husband or wife?" Often that's the first step to getting [workaholics] in, because they start getting curious about what's going on: "You two are talking about me and I'm not there?" A lot of times you need to use whatever leverage you might have to break the destructive pattern, because these folks don't always look at it in terms of a true cost-benefit picture. Sure, they can see the benefits, but they aren't recognising the costs.

What's the most extreme case of executive burnout you've seen? I've seen at least one death -- of an otherwise healthy 37-year-old -- that I'd attribute at least partly to badly managed stress. The actual cause of death was heart attack. And he was with a high-tech company. There are lots of other less dramatic examples. I had a manager for one of the car companies who told me that he often wakes up at two in the morning and can't fall back to sleep.

He just lies there, thinking about what he has to do at work. So what does he do? He drives to the office. I asked him how often this happens. He said sometimes several nights a week. So here's a guy who doesn't even get half a night's sleep because of his work addiction, and he only came in to see me because of excessive fatigue and distractibility. He wanted a quick fix so that he could continue with this pattern but not feel so tired or distracted. A lot of times these people are in denial. They're often the only ones who can't see that they have a problem.

Choose your poison -- a bottle or a job.

A lot of behaviours that give us an emotional charge carry the potential to become compulsive behaviours. Work is one of those. If you get addicted to the charge, you start going back for it more and more. For an alcoholic, drinking starts to take up more of the person's life until there's not a whole lot left.

Work can do the same thing for some people. The problem is that you look at an alcoholic or drug addict and say, this person is going down the tubes. But work is a noble thing. When people are giving their all to work, they start to get more respect. Also, the best solution for the alcoholic is abstinence. That's not a possible solution for workaholics. They have to learn moderation, which means they remain in close contact with the object of their obsession.

What should an IT executive do if he recognises that he's in danger of getting into trouble with stress? First, begin to monitor yourself. A lot of times people have blinders on; they're not seeking feedback from others even when it's readily available. I see a lot of 360 evaluations, and a lot of executives are amazed to find that their direct reports are all rating them really low on balance issues, lifestyle issues. They'll ask me what that means, and I'll explain that they're overworking and probably setting a poor example. They're stressing out their staff. And I'll say, "Pay attention to this feedback and to the feedback you get from your family. These folks are the first ones to be affected by this, even before you." One of the most common things I hear from spouses when I counsel their workaholic husband or wife is, "I've been trying to tell him that for years." So if there's one piece of advice I could offer right now, it would be enhance your ability to self-monitor by seeking feedback from others.

If you're hearing that you spend too much time at the office, and your spouse says he or she doesn't know you anymore, don't answer with, "I really have no other options." That's the wrong answer. If you really believe that, it's time to call for help.

Copyright © 1999 IDG Communications, Inc.

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