When stress becomes a killer

2 years ago   •   10 min read

By Ashish Mohan
Another deadly pandemic is at work in corporate workplaces.  That pandemic is stress.  Managers today are battling unprecedented and dangerously high levels of work-related stress.  Ashish Mohan suggests urgent steps companies should take to address the challenge.

 

After reading about the recent untimely death of Andy Ross, president and CEO of a major European bank in an emerging market (individual and company names have been changed to protect privacy), I would like to write a few words about stress.

Ross suffered a massive heart attack and passed away in April at the age of 46.  It is difficult to understand how a seemingly fit youngish man had a sudden, fatal heart attack, and perhaps we will never know.

At this time, I am reminded of a similar death back in 2009, of Robert Schöttlin, managing director and CEO of ABC Software, a German software giant, who died at the age of 42 also of a heart attack right after his morning gym workout.  Schöttlin boasted in a television interview that he only slept four to five hours a night, and eating right and going to the gym were a part of his daily regimen.  He admitted he had high stress, but the prevalent feeling has been, “Well, doesn’t everybody have high stress nowadays?”

I am also reminded of the death by suicide in 2014 of the managing director of a major automobile company.  He was 51 when he died.  We don’t know why he jumped out from the window of his 22nd-floor room in a Bangkok hotel, but we do know that he had an argument with his wife a few hours prior, and the couple were planning to separate because she wanted to return to England to have a quieter life with him, while he felt he could not leave his jet-setting job at the automobile company.

While each of the above deaths probably had quite varied causes, in cases like these a combination of factors is usually at work, and knowing a thing or two about stress myself, I would vouch that stress (workplace and/or personal/family) definitely played a significant role.

As someone who has spent years on two continents researching workplace stress, I know full well that stress is something that, if left unchecked, can kill you.  Where stress is concerned, we human beings find it really hard to discard our workplace stress at the door as we return home at night.  All of us bear the double yoke of work and personal/family stress heaped on our backs.

And this burden is getting heavier.  Ever-present speed of light communication has ensured that the line between work life and home life has blurred and been obliterated forever.  The modern work cultures we have created reward long hours, adherence to impossible and ever more ambitious targets, an emphasis on the bottom line versus concern for the individual, little or no bargaining power in the hands of workers when it comes to better work conditions, and little or no time for self, family, friends, faith, hobbies or community.

What is really frightening is that we are all now so accustomed to remarkably high levels of workplace stress that we scarcely even notice the stress is there.  Most of the time we ignore it, or, if we happen to mention it at all, cast it aside quickly with a dour joke.  And things race along fine until the inevitable explosion comes.

We don’t realise that stress is like a pressure cooker—it accumulates over time and builds and builds unless we regularly release the steam.  Without release the pressure cooker will burst, the explosion taking the form of burnout (a state of exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress), a nervous breakdown (a state of such overwhelming stress symptoms that the person is no longer able to function), or death (by suicide, or by overworking your mind and body to death).

Death by overwork is so common in Japan that they even have a word for it: karoshiKaroshi literally means ‘overwork death’, and refers to occupational sudden mortality.  The major medical causes of karoshi deaths are heart attack and stroke due to stress and a starvation diet.  I used to think karoshi was something that happened only in Japan, but it is clear now that karoshi is becoming more and more common all over the world.  The rest of the world just didn’t have a word for it.

The truth about Andy’s death

New information has emerged regarding the untimely death of bank president Andy Ross at age 46.  The new details are sad and shocking, but necessary for all of us to know if we want to understand what really happened to Andy and how people in the corporate world can avoid his tragic fate.

A few days after Andy’s death, a video landed in my WhatsApp inbox, forwarded to me by a friend.  He had gone to college with Andy, and found a recent video of Andy that was floating around on WhatsApp.

The recording was made by Andy two days into the lockdown surrounding the coronavirus epidemic, so I could date the video to about twenty-five days before he died.  Andy had recorded the video to reassure his staff during the lockdown, but in the video he also talked about his personal struggles with stress.

Andy began by sharing his concern for the health of his staff, cautioning them to stay healthy during the covid crisis.  He talked about how, even though he was working completely from home, his workdays were getting longer and longer.  He mentioned he had been so overwhelmingly busy with work that he was eating lunch close to 6 pm.  He mentioned he was on audio or video conference calls for several hours every day, and these calls were mentally very taxing.

These calls required him to be absolutely focused on the subjects being discussed in the call, and took a lot out of him, leaving him drained at the end of each call.  He reminded his staff to make sure they took frequent breaks and remembered to drink water during the workday.  He implied that it was a struggle for him to find time to take breaks and drink water during his workday.  It was clear he was so busy at times even having a sip of water was a luxury.

Watching the call was emotionally wrenching, knowing I was watching a man who was just days away from his death.  Selfless to the end, he was dying from overwork while he was telling his employees to take good care of their health.

I now had a clearer picture of Andy’s life.  He was going through an extreme version of what you and I have all gone through at some point in our lives—overwhelming stress, sustained over a long period of time.  Andy was a brave man, who had been battling tremendous odds without complaining.  He had taken good care of everyone—his employees, his customers, his bosses, and everyone else—but forgotten to take care of himself.

So Andy did die from what the Japanese call a karoshi death—a death due to stress and overwork.  A newspaper article carried a short account of how the end came:  Andy was fine on the morning of April 20, 2020,  and had interacted with his company’s leadership team through text messages.  He then headed to the gym inside his house for a workout.  He ran on the treadmill.  At around 10.30 a.m., he collapsed.  His family rushed him to the hospital where he was declared dead.

The manner of Andy’s death is almost identical to Robert Schöttlin’s death, the ABC Software managing director who also collapsed following a morning gym workout.  The exhausted heart, dangerously enfeebled by months and years of high stress, meagre sleep and meagre nutrition, gave out after the demands of that final physical workout.

Are karoshi deaths the price we must pay for company profitability and revenue targets?  Quite clearly–no.  We have to take care of ourselves and our jobs and find a balance.  But we cannot do this effectively without the help of the people we work for, the company higher-ups–business owners, business leaders and corporate boards.

 

What companies must do about stress now

Andy Ross’ tragic death holds lessons for all of us.  However, given the prevalence of stress in corporate workplaces, I suspect many people are clueless about what needs to be done.  I also suspect most companies do not have a coherent plan for combatting stress.

Reducing stress in our workplaces is not a difficult problem to solve.  Dealing with stress does not require rocket science.  Researched, proven and effective strategies for coping with stress are already available.  We just need the will to implement them, and be willing to commit a little bit of time and resources to the task.  What follows will be better mental and physical health for employees, higher productivity across all company areas, and, as a direct result–higher revenue and profits.

I would like to spell out four simple steps companies can take to reduce employee stress.  Let’s explore what each step involves.

  1. Organise interactive, scientific and structured workshops on stress for all professional staff

These workshops should start with the top management team, then proceed to staff in various departments.  This can be accomplished quite quickly, and the expenses made will be more than offset by productivity gains.  But two important points must be borne in mind.

First, workshops should be scientific and structured.  In many companies, I have seen stress management workshops being conducted by what I call ‘quack’ trainers (trainers who do not have the credentials or skills to deliver an effective science-based workshop).  The results of such workshops, of course, are disastrous.  Your company will waste valuable time, money and resources, while your employees get no clear benefit in terms of their ability to cope with stress.

So who should conduct stress workshops?  I would strongly suggest you hire an organisational psychologist, occupational therapist or behavioural scientist to deliver workshops on stress.  And a one-day workshop is enough.  A structured, tightly-focused workshop does not have to be more than 7 or 8 hours long.

Second, workshops should deliver measurable results. A scientific workshop on stress should start by using a psychologist-designed survey instrument to measure initial levels of stress for each participant.  This should only take a few minutes to administer right before the workshop.

About three months after the workshop, it is important to measure the level of staff stress again using the same survey instrument.  Comparing pre- and post-workshop results will give a fairly accurate picture of what the workshop interventions have accomplished.

  1. Designate department heads as ‘Stress Healers’

In addition to their regular roles, every department head should also don the role of ‘Stress Healer’.  The top manager could assume the role of ‘chief Stress Healer’.  Doing so will demonstrate a solid commitment to fight stress throughout the company, and make it easier for employees to share their stress problems without being judged.

  1. A sustained program of regular stress-reduction interventions

The company’s commitment to combatting stress should not end with the organising of an initial round of stress management workshops.  At regular intervals (say, once a quarter), all departments should be required to organise their own interventions to keep stress low.  These interventions can be creative and take various forms: a frank, honest departmental meeting to discuss ongoing stress problems; employee-suggested programs to tackle stress such as a company-wide sports league; or, if needed, further intervention or training by a psychologist to tackle tough issues.

Company leaders in high-stress roles may want to consult a psychologist/counsellor at least once a quarter.  We go for regular annual physical exams, don’t we?  It is even more important to keep our minds healthy.  Regularly confiding in a counsellor could mean the difference between life and death.

Targets in our modern era, unfortunately, have become tools by which many managers ridicule, abuse, terrorise and even terminate staff (sales departments are hotbeds of stress due to this).  Metaphorically speaking, targets are routinely utilised as guillotines to slice off the heads of many unfortunate people in our companies.  This is wrong, self-defeating and costly.

  1. Keep targets, but change how you think about them

Targets, as each of us knows from bitter personal experience, can be the cause of much stress.

Targets in our modern era, unfortunately, have become tools by which many managers ridicule, abuse, terrorise and even terminate staff (sales departments are hotbeds of stress due to this).  Metaphorically speaking, targets are routinely utilised as guillotines to slice off the heads of many unfortunate people in our companies.  This is wrong, self-defeating and costly.

When we enforce targets in a way that damages the well-being of our people, we are hitting ourselves in the foot with a sharp axe.  We are taking a short-term view, we are hurting the psyche and productivity of our people, and we are severely damaging our companies.

‘Growth’ that comes at the expense of staff well-being will always be unsustainable and come at a steep cost.  If you think it is okay to axe sales people every six months and replace them with new ones, think about the costs associated with recruiting, hiring, inducting and training new people, not to mention the cost of lost customer relationships.  In such a toxic environment, is it any wonder that many companies have high turnover these days?

Long-term business viability is built on building strong relationships with customers, generating repeat business from them, and understanding the lifetime value of customers.  You can’t do that if you are firing sales people every six months.

It does not have to be this way.

Targets should be reference points, helpful goals that direct our efforts.  Evidence of an employee’s sincere efforts should be far more important to a company than the achievement of a short-term target.  If an employee is doing her best, non-achievement of a target should be used as an occasion to offer constructive feedback:  “You have done your best, but only achieved 50 per cent of your target. Let’s sit down and identify the problems. And, as your boss, what can I do to help you do better?”  This type of support and encouragement will produce higher productivity and growth.  Only when there is evidence that an employee has been derelict in their duties should disciplinary action be considered.

If they combat stress at all, most companies only go as far as implementing Step 1, and that, too, somewhat dubiously.  They hold a stress management workshop by a questionable ‘expert’, and then hope their people’s stress will magically disappear forever.  But actually, it keeps growing and growing.  And that is why we find ourselves where we are today.

 

 

What you can do to cope with your stress

What can you as an individual do to reduce your work stress?  Here are a few common-sense strategies

 

  1. Take regular breaks during the work day

Make sure you pause for two coffee breaks and a lunch break.

  1. Quit work at a reasonable time every evening

Spend the evening in relaxing activities unrelated to work.

  1. Pause for the weekend, and make it social

Work a five-day week and try to spend part of the weekend in activities with other people.

  1. Make time for a vacation every three months

Actively plan to take a few days off for a holiday with your family or friends once a quarter

  1. Ensure you are sleeping a minimum of seven hours each night

Rising super early for that early morning workout can hurt you if you are not getting enough sleep. If you are rushed for time in the morning, see if you can workout during your lunch hour or right after work in the early evening.

Stress is toxic.  It is misery-inducing and productivity-sapping at best, and life-threatening at worst.  There is no time to waste.  Let’s all take action now before someone else succumbs to stress.

Get in touch with Ashish:

Email:  ashish.mohan@imdev.org

LinkedIn:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/ashish-bill-mohan-33a3838/

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