Balancing Acts

In a new CFO survey, finance chiefs talk about the challenges they face in finding equilibrium between their jobs and their personal lives.
June 15, 2015

15Jun_WLB_p34v2How hard is it to have a life these days? For CFOs, very hard. Only 12% of finance chiefs manage to strike a 50–50 balance between their work and their personal lives. For the rest, work commands most of their time, energy, and attention. Eighty-five percent of finance chiefs say work takes up at least 60% of their waking hours, while 6 out of 10 CFOs devote 70% or more of their time and energy to their jobs.

These are some of the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your point of view) of a new survey on work-life balance by CFO. More than 400 senior finance executives responded to the survey, answering questions and offering advice on finding equilibrium between work and life — even though that balance is weighted toward work for most. They made it clear that CFOs work hard, often shortchanging their personal lives and sometimes pushing themselves to the point of burnout.

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The executives also stressed that work-life balance is a personal measure; what’s acceptable for one may be unacceptable for another. Most (67%) said that if they were given a second chance, they would choose a finance career all over again.

More findings from the survey are discussed below, ranging from hours worked (a lot) to vacation days taken (not enough).

The (Increasingly) Long Workweek
The average number of hours per week worked by senior finance executives has increased by only one hour since 2004, to 54, according to the survey. Still, that’s significantly longer than a standard 40-hour workweek. Executives at organizations with less than $1 billion in annual revenues reported that they work an average of 53 hours per week, while those at larger organizations work an average of 58 hours per week. (Respondents’ estimates of their work and life percentages are shown in Figure 1.)

15Jun_WLB_p36Despite the fractional increase in average total hours worked, nearly three out of four respondents (73%) said their total number of hours devoted to work has increased, thanks to mobile technology and greater connectivity to enterprise systems. Certainly, the pressure on finance chiefs to be available around the clock is considerable. Three out of four respondents (76%) agreed that responding to business e-mails or messages outside of normal business hours reflects the strong pressure they feel to be reachable at all times.

Nearly 9 in 10 respondents (89%) reported that the expectation that they will respond to e-mails and messages outside of normal business hours has increased compared with five years ago, including a majority (53%) who said that this expectation has “increased a lot.” Not surprisingly, this 24/7 accessibility has degraded the quality of life at home. Nearly two-thirds (62%) of respondents disagreed with the notion that, over the last two years, advances in mobile technology and better connectivity to enterprise systems has led to an improved quality of life outside of work. On the other hand, 61% of respondents did agree that better mobile technology and connectivity have improved their ability to honor personal commitments and attend personal events (if not necessarily improving their ability to focus on the event at hand).

A majority (54%) of respondents said that they still do at least 90% of their work in their primary office. However, the trend toward doing more work away from work is growing. Sixty percent of respondents reported that they now work away from their primary office more often today than they did five years ago, and 63% expected that they would work away from the office more often in five years.

When asked for advice on how to manage the barrage of after-hours communications, several finance chiefs focused on the necessity of setting expectations for the time frame in which various types of issues will be dealt with. Wrote one CFO: “Almost nothing needs immediate attention. There is nothing to be gained in business, or life, by always picking up a crying baby.”

15Jun_WLB_p37aAdded another finance chief: “The need for instant gratification on all things via electronic devices detracts from meaningful conversations — personal conversations that resolve so much more, are more meaningful, and have greater impact.” A third CFO concluded: “No one else will make the call for you. If you don’t establish an expectation of how much to give to your job versus your family, work will continue to take as much of your time as possible.”

Managing Stress, Staying Healthy
Although the intensity of pressure felt by CFOs at work has actually declined over the last decade, it remains omnipresent. More than half (56%) of senior finance executives indicated that they feel “high pressure” or “very high” pressure at work; this number fell from the almost two-thirds (62%) who felt such pressure in 2004. (See Figure 2, above.) Similarly, more than half (59%) of respondents said that pressure has increased over the past two years, down from the more than two-thirds (68%) who said so in 2004.

A slightly higher percentage (61%) of female respondents reported that they feel “high pressure” or “very high” pressure” at work, and more than two-thirds (68%) of female respondents said that pressure has increased over the past two years.

Half (52%) of respondents said that work-related stress has had a harmful effect on their health at some point in their careers, compared with almost two-thirds (63%) who said so in 2004. (See Figure 3.) Six in 10 (62%) female respondents said that work-related stress has had a harmful effect on their health at some point in their career.

15Jun_WLB_p37bMore than two-thirds (68%) of respondents reported they have suffered from “burnout” (fatigue, frustration, or apathy resulting from prolonged stress, overwork, or intense activity). Eight in ten (80%) female respondents said they have suffered from burnout. A director of finance who suffered from burnout explained the difference between the condition and overwork: “Real burnout happens as a result of hopelessness. Most finance professionals are willing to rise to any meaningful challenge — it is only when the additional activity leads to no improvement that burnout happens.”

A large number of survey respondents noted that maintaining a healthy body is the most important way to avoid burnout, specifically because diet and exercise are variables that can be controlled. Respondents recommended dozens of activities — yoga, sports, meditation — generally with the caveat that any activity must be an immovable part of the CFO’s daily schedule. And while their messages about diet, exercise, and sleep tend to mimic doctors’ oft-ignored recommendations, respondents did convey thoughtful advice on avoiding burnout.

A managing director wrote: “Don’t drink. Get some exercise and sunlight — don’t go to a gym. Play tennis, ride a bike, catch a fish, sail a boat. Read more books and watch less television.” Said a CFO: “Work hard. Play hard. Take time to unstring the bow, or it will lose its elasticity.” A VP of finance and operations noted, “It’s much easier to [stay fit] as you grow professionally than to put yourself last and have to claw your way back to health and fitness.” And a CFO added, “Take real vacations where you disconnect and let people know you will be unavailable.”

15Jun_WLB_p38aSetting Priorities
More than half (58%) of survey respondents said they place a high priority on managing their work-life balance. And more than three-quarters (78%) said they expect to place a higher priority on work-life balance when evaluating their next significant career-related decision, compared with their last one. Together, these data points imply that placing a high priority on work-life balance does not mean that an acceptable balance is actually being achieved.

The survey also made clear that many finance executives view their skewed work-life balance as typical for the CFO position. In fact, 87% of respondents said that finance executives put a higher emphasis on work than peers in other professions. But a director of finance reinforced the point that personal decisions still have the greatest impact on work-life balance: “My family doesn’t mind me working at home if I am completely available during the times that are ‘family time.’”

Another CFO wrote: “I put myself in the hospital for three days because I was not managing work-life balance. Now I designate ‘dark times’ when I am unavailable in the evenings, and I check e-mail only a few times over the weekend (unless a deadline is coming up).”

As for vacations, a little more than one-quarter (27%) of respondents said they use all of their vacation time, down from more than one-third (38%) in 2004. However, half (50%) of respondents said they believe it will become less difficult to use their available vacation time over the next five years.

Only 7% of respondents reported that they don’t do work on vacation, a percentage that fell to 2% for CFOs at organizations with annual revenues over $1 billion. The majority of respondents chose a middle ground (see Figure 4, above).

“Schedule regular vacations,” advised one finance executive. “If work cannot get by without you for a week, then you need to get a better team.”

15Jun_WLB_p38bAchieving a Better Balance
As for the future, a third (33%) of survey respondents thought their work-life balance would improve over the next five years, while half (50%) said it would stay the same.

A number of CFOs proffered some parting advice on achieving work-life balance. One VP of finance and operations described the end-goal: “The definition of ‘success’ needs to include effective management of work-life balance, so life accomplishments outside of work are not only possible, they’re an integral part of how success is perceived.”

An EVP of finance put the onus for change on himself: “The main cause for change will be my determination and focus on changing it,” he wrote. “I am a workaholic by nature, and nothing will change my work-life balance unless I want it to change.” Meanwhile, a managing director counseled setting an expectation in the finance team that it’s OK to disengage after hours. “Change begins with you,” he said. “Try to make someone else’s work and professional life less ghastly.”

Many respondents focused on the need to hire and develop a finance team that would allow them to delegate effectively. Summarized one executive: “Finance people tend to be perfectionists, but to maintain that level of perfection by oneself is not sustainable. Hire good people, empower them, and trust them to execute. Reward them when they do.”
A CFO was more succinct: “Delegate, delegate, delegate. Automate, automate, automate.”

Hear, hear.

Chris Schmidt is director, research, at CFO Research.

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