Executive Burnout How to Recognise It and How Beat It: Life, for Many Managers and Corporate Employees, Is a Daily Battle against Fatigue, Exhaustion, Stress and Mood Disorders. Why? and What Can Be Done about It

By Wharton, Lynda | New Zealand Management, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Executive Burnout How to Recognise It and How Beat It: Life, for Many Managers and Corporate Employees, Is a Daily Battle against Fatigue, Exhaustion, Stress and Mood Disorders. Why? and What Can Be Done about It


Wharton, Lynda, New Zealand Management


A recent health survey tested 500 white-collar workers from businesses throughout the country. The survey, conducted over two years by Wendy Sweet from The Personal Training Company, provides a candid insight into the health of corporate New Zealand. The findings also make for depressing reading.

More than half of this country's white-collar workers regularly suffer from stress-related mood disturbances such as headaches and migraines, insomnia, neck and lower back tension. More than a third of them, if the survey is any guide, suffer from chronic fatigue, and nearly 40 percent experience stress-related skin disorders.

Cardiovascular health fares almost as poorly with 48 percent of workers having below average aerobic fitness, 36 percent have high total cholesterol, and 45 percent have excessively low levels of protective HDL cholesterol.

The Southern Cross Healthworks programme has also identified stress as a major health risk issue. From a sample of 2000 employees, both managerial and non-managerial, who completed the Healthworks programme, 16 percent were considered "potentially at risk" as a result of stress. Six percent were classified as "already at risk". A similar Southern Cross study involving 300 human resource executives found stress was even more of an issue, with 23 percent of them potentially at risk, and nine percent already at risk.

The Mental Health Foundation says that mental health issues are a major cause of worker absenteeism in New Zealand.

Despite employers' new legislative responsibilities to better manage the environment and processes that contribute to the mental and physical health of their employees, mental health and stress-related workplace problems are still viewed negatively. There is still deep-seated worker resistance to admitting stress-related problems, according to 'corporate wellness' specialists. Admitting that you are not coping with work responsibility implies weakness and, in either the employee's mind or in reality, has the potential to threaten promotion prospects.

Occasionally "going for the burn" to meet a looming deadline, is an expected part of corporate life. But statistics show that stress, often resulting from excessive work demands, is becoming a chronic debilitating problem for an increasing number of white-collar workers.

Struggling to survive in an unreasonably stressful work environment leads, increasingly, to burnout. The phenomenon of personal "crash and burn" is a prime factor in employee turnover, absenteeism, low morale and productivity decline in the workplace.

Managers trying to pick who will stay fresh and balanced in the face of work pressures, and who will bow to burnout, are confronted with a complex analysis. While some executives seemingly seek out stress by thriving on pressure, work responsibility and long hours, others quickly reach a point of diminishing returns as the workload climbs and pressure mounts. Stress per se, while often contributing to burnout, does not always predict who will burnout. Other contributing factors include genetic predisposition, other health conditions, environment, experience, business type, management approach, lifestyle choices and personal stresses.

Dr Penny Warring, from the corporate wellness organisation Well for Life, works with blue- and white-collar workers from many industries. "Workplace stress comes in many forms," she says when asked what causes burnout. "Many corporate businesses have now changed to a performance-based management style, with constant productivity targets to meet. This, combined with the downsizing of corporations and the resulting increased workload for individual employees, contributes significantly to stress and resulting burnout. Many executives are stressed by the sheer uncertainty of their place in a rapidly changing workplace. As organisations undergo change, the question 'will I have a job tomorrow? …

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