Human Capital & Careers

Under Pressure

Companies coping with stricter governance and reporting codes will also see stress levels reach new heights. How can finance executives maintain pr...
Rhymer RigbyFebruary 20, 2004

Grouchy, impatient, no attention span, and a temper that can flare up unexpectedly. No doubt CFOs have seen plenty of the tell-tale symptoms of stressed-out staff, and probably even suffer personally on occasion. Let’s face it, stress levels in finance departments have always been high, especially around this time of the year during the annual closing season. And with the onset of new and stricter governance and reporting codes, more and more companies will see stress levels reaching new heights throughout their organisations. In many cases then, the onus will be on CFOs to stem the problem and prevent a sharp decline in productivity and morale.

A two-year study of nearly 12,000 employees by L’Institut français de l’anxiété & du stress (Ifas), a Paris-based consulting and coaching firm, highlights just how serious the problem is. According to its findings, nearly one in four employees is suffering from sur-stress—a condition in which stress puts a person’s physical and mental health at risk. The study shows that more women (34%) than men (20%) feel the ill effects of stress, and the most susceptible are women 55 years old or more.

Experts note that the factors causing stress vary widely. Laurence Saunders, managing director of Ifas, says the most obvious times when stress hits acute levels is during periods of upheaval or uncertainty when a person’s ability to adapt is put to the test—say, during a merger, reorganisation, layoffs. The situation often becomes more aggravated among executives who suffer from what she calls l’excés d’adhésion. That’s when overworked executives lose a work/life balance and have difficulty keeping changes around the office in perspective.

Finance staff can feel particularly vulnerable, adds Chris Sawicki, a Berkshire, UK-based managing director at Hunter Kane, a global stress-management consulting firm. “We’ve worked with a lot of finance people, and one of the things they always talk about is deadlines. Unlike other functions, finance’s deadlines tend to be non-negotiable.”

Chill Out

Of course, stress is much misunderstood. For, like alcohol, a little stress can be a good thing. As Octavius Black, managing director of The Mind Gym, a London-based consulting firm, explains: “The first thing to understand is that there are two kinds of stress: eu-stress [derived from the word ‘euphoria’] and distress. Eu-stress helps you perform better, whereas distress makes you feel worse.”

More often than not, companies have difficulty dealing with “distress,” which can be perceived as a sign of weakness. For example, “in France it doesn’t look good for a senior manager to say to his colleagues that he’s going to a stress manager,” says Dominique Stieler, an assistant professor at Grenoble Graduate School of Business. But, “things have begun to change here over the last two to three years and there is an increased willingness to do something.”

That includes companies of all sizes introducing ways to reduce—and prevent—stress around their offices. Staff at Innocent Drinks, a fast-growing London company that produces natural fruit drinks, for example, are offered monthly massages and an annual group ski trip—both paid for by the company. Assessments every six months and weekly one-on-one meetings with line managers are also important in the battle against harmful stress, adds James Davenport, the 30-year-old CFO at Innocent. He reckons those meetings make it easier for him to pick up on any warning signals, not to mention make sure that people are happy in their current posts. After all, he says, stress management is “also about having the right people in the right jobs.”

Other companies, however, turn to outside assistance. Any number of specialists offer counselling and workshops addressing work-related stress. Hunter Kane, for one, counts Shell, HSBC and Unilever among its clients, and has been offering stress management workshops developed with the help of cardiologists and neuroscientists that, in its parlance, enhance “heart-brain communication.” Workshops, with up to 25 participants, usually last a day and teach techniques that “alter the quality of the internal electrical signals sent to the brain” and help people improve how they perform under pressure.

As for advice to finance chiefs facing a stressed-out team back at the office, Saunders of Ifas has this to say: “Stress can be very motivating for some people, but not for others. It depends on how individuals perceive their work environment.” In this respect, she says, their manager—as “chief stress regulator”—plays a central role in heading off bouts of sur-stress.