With financial markets in many regions near all-time highs, logic would suggest that executives should be feeling happier than during the worst of the downturn. In fact, the opposite is true for some occupants of C-suites, resulting in a troubling number of executive suicides in different parts of the globe in recent months.
According to Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at insurer Axa PPP’s specialist health services division, such developments are not unexpected after a long downturn. “People have been living on adrenalin for the past few years,” Dr Winwood says. “After a long time running on empty, all of a sudden they become very, very unwell.” It has a name: burnout.
Why do executives not just walk away from the job? Many suffer from what Dr Winwood calls “priority confusion”, which means they are unable to see how ill they are and have a poor work-life balance.
Financial executives, particularly in places such as the City of London and Wall Street, often have type A personalities – they are competitive, self-critical and perfectionist, which serves to magnify the problem, he says. While work-related stress is blamed, in reality these executives often have a combination of two common psychological conditions: depression and anxiety.
There are key warning signs laymen can look out for, Dr Winwood says.
The psychological symptoms include an inability to make decisions, a feeling of mental confusion, or unusual aggressiveness. People might also have mood swings, be fearful, lack confidence or feel unmotivated.
Physical warning signs are moving more slowly and changes in weight. Some can’t stop eating; others have no appetite at all. Unexplained aches and pains, such as headaches, back ache and shoulder pain may also be signs. As the condition worsens, sufferers can cease to look after themselves, their hygiene might deteriorate and they may stop caring about how they look. They might stop showing up for social engagements or no longer find pleasure in hobbies they used to enjoy. At the extreme end they may consider self-harm or suicide. “There is a sense of priority confusion where the priority of work overwhelms everything else and you need to achieve perfectionism in your work,” Dr Winwood says.
If any of these symptoms sound familiar, it is time to seek professional help. Many companies have employee assistance programmes that are anonymous and can direct staff to trained psychologists.
When work stress is becoming too intense, it is a good time to think about establishing boundaries in your work. “Have some time without the BlackBerry, when you are not reachable on the phone,” Dr Winwood says.
A particularly heinous recent practice is the “magic roundabout”, where younger executives work up to 72 hours straight, going home only to shower, change clothes and return before the start of the official working day. As a result, some City firms now ban employees from working both days of the weekend.
Another solution is training in mindfulness, a type of meditation borrowed from Buddhism that has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety. It is being taught by such diverse employers as the UK Home Office, Google and even construction companies.
Mindfulness programmes at work have had “some amazing results in the amounts of reduced sickness and absence due to stress,” Dr Winwood says.