Executive Stress

First appeared in ‘Financial World’ (UK)
From the late 1920s stress has been defined as a “fight or flight” reaction to a threat, or a perceived threat. This definition by Walter Cannon now appears to be incomplete and research also suggests that the order is wrong.

Jeffrey Gray, amongst others ethologists, redefines the onset of stress as having three distinct stages – freeze, flight and only then fight.

The initial stage, “the freeze response”, is described as a state of hyper-vigilance (being on guard, watchful, or hyper-alert). This “stop, look, and listen” stage is associated with fear. Ethological research has demonstrated that prey that remain “frozen” during a threat are more likely to avoid detection.

Following this initial freeze response, the next response in the sequence is an attempt to get away from the danger. Once that option has been exhausted, there is an attempt to fight. These reactions always occur in this order.

These observations within the animal world are still thought to apply to humans as a hangover from primitive times. When we get into stressful situations the body automatically carries out a number of functions:

  • Firstly it discharges large amounts of adrenalin into the blood stream.
  • It shuts down the digestive system to allow an increased blood flow to the muscles.
  • It thickens the blood so that if the organism is cut, the blood will clot quickly.
  • These chemicals stay in the body and cause the symptoms we associate with stress these days – upset stomach, palpitations, heart disease, depression, etc.

Today a modern financial executive is more likely to encounter stress with a last minute presentation to the board, rather than being attacked by a wild animal. Yet the same stages are involved. We’ve all experienced the freeze response – or denial response, as some psychologists interpret the threat. It takes the form of: “Why me?” This is followed by the flight option. This can be quite tempting at the time, and occasionally the stress is so bad that flight – physically or emotionally – is the only way out.

However, more often than not the final option kicks in. This inevitably manifests itself as the “challenge”. The CFO has to respond as rationally and calmly as possible whilst the adrenaline builds up. Once or twice this is good. However, over a number of months, or years, it can eventually cause headaches, ulcers, etc as well as potential psychological and behavioural problems – depression, sleeplessness, etc.

The timing of stress is different from executive to executive. Graham Beasant, director of Finance and Corporate Resources at theUK’s Central Office of Information (COI), feels stress for him has an almost seasonal element: “I feel more pressure from April to June due to the end of the financial year and the preparation of COI’s annual report. During this time there are deadlines placed on COI by Parliament, the public and auditors.”

Maurice Phillips, finance director, Southdown Housing Association identified different aspects of the job as having more stress: “If you have a chance to work in finance then you will realise that most finance jobs are very busy in any organisation and stress comes with the nature of the work. The higher you go the more demanding and stressful the job becomes.”

Stress isn’t all bad though – we need some stress in our lives in order to perform – those last minute energy rushes to meet a deadline, the adrenaline that gives you the ability to see sharper, hear more and react quicker when placed in uncomfortable situations. We need stress – without it life would be incredibly boring. On the positive side stress is a source of motivation and a necessary component to survival. But it’s this excessive or prolonged stress that inevitably takes a toll on health.

A recent development in the study of stress links to control – the less control people have over their lives the more stress they tend to have. In terms of management within organisations, occupational psychologist Cary Cooper says: “Senior managers have ‘a sense of control’ … they feel they’re involved in decision-making. Research over the last couple of decades has shown that people who feel they have no control, no autonomy over the job they do in the workplace are likely to get a stress-related illness.”

How much control, as employers and managers do we have over these factors? Quite a bit, it would seem. Many of these factors relate to job design and communicating expectations – these are probably within the control of managers. Some organisations seem to take these factors very seriously indeed and many have introduced schemes for managing stress amongst their workforce.