“Pity the modern manager” an article title, featuring in the Economist in October which highlighted a 20% increase in the burnout rate of senior leaders, from 48% in 2022 to 68% in 2023.
It’s like being on a treadmill where someone else is controlling the speed. And it’s not stopping.
I’ve become increasingly interested in understanding the impact of stress. Not normal stress, the kind that spikes up and down over time, that actually as human beings we are well adjusted to managing. I’m interested in the impact of chronic stress. The kind that makes you feel like you are on that treadmill, feeling desperate and trapped – and have been for a while.
There is a myth associated with this type of lifestyle that is perpetuated in certain high demand task orientated industries, the myth is that this kind of stress is a good thing – that it builds grit in employees and if we “just keep persisting” we will gradually adjust to working at this pace. As a psychologist, I find this not only disturbing but also plainly wrong – a misconception of what grit is and a denial of the impact of chronic stress on the human body and organisational culture.
In trying to articulate this sense of denial we can look to eating disorders as a comparison.
Eating disorders, namely anorexia, are some of the hardest psychiatric illnesses to treat. Why? Well, there are two main reasons…
The first reason is that, unlike depression or anxiety where patients can see and feel the negative impact of their condition in their life, eating disorder patients are in deep denial about the impact their behaviour and mindset are having on their health and wellbeing. They do not want to get better because they don’t believe they are unwell.
They have a distorted view of themselves and the severity of their condition. They believe that they are looking after themselves, and they believe that their restricted eating is achieving their overall objective of weight loss making it therefore healthy and sustainable.
Stress in corporate environments seems to have the same pervasive impact. Under leadership contexts that are overly competitive, task oriented at all costs and tunnel focused on outputs, stress becomes the anorexia of the organisational culture.
We focus on the outputs being achieved and targets being reached and stop seeing the overall impact that it is having on our people and teams. We turn a blind eye to the higher turnover rates, increased sick leave and we delude ourselves into thinking that if we just keep working harder, we will come out healthier – more successful.
Ironically, this strive to win at all costs mentality is pushing people to the brink of their capacity to cope and as a result is reducing their capacity to work effectively in the very jobs, we are pushing them so hard in.
An anorexic body cannot function at its full potential. Levels of exhaustion make small tasks overwhelming and over time patients risk organ failure and mortality.
A chronically stressed person, team or organisation cannot function at their full potential.
Levels of high demand, split attention and cognitive overload lead to increased mistakes, reduced cognitive flexibility, poor relationships and exhaustion. Over time teams risk organisational organ failure: higher turnover, burnout and disengaged employees.
Not only does this risk the physical and mental health of your employees but it impacts how they perceive, talk about and informally advertise working at your organisation. In a social media world where employees have become the most influential brand ambassadors, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise how these working conditions are impacting your NPS.
The crux: Chronic stress environments are hurting your bottom line. They making your smartest employees less intelligent and negatively impacting how young potential talent view your organisation.
The second reason eating disorders are so hard to treat is that regretfully like anorexia, we wake up to this reality too late. The pervasive creep of the negative impact is slow and subtle. We find ourselves so deep in the delusion of the “just keep working” or “just keep pushing on” mentality that we not noticing the alarm bells of toxicity.
We wake up when something snaps us back to reality – when we lose several top talents to another firm or in worst case scenarios, when we lose a member of our team to a stress endured heart condition.
Treating toxic work culture requires bold leadership.
It is not a blame game – both employee and employer need to negotiate what kind of corporate culture they want and intentionally claw towards that. Like any treatment process this is often hard, slow and effort filled, but if you want to survive, and if you want to attract Gen Z (a noticeably more value-driven generation) then getting this right matters, sooner rather than later.