“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!” This had always been Michel’s response when his senior executives started “wilting under pressure” and letting him down. As the CEO of a global oil company who had risen through the ranks, Michel had faced many stressful events on off-shore rigs early in his career, and considered himself to be a tough guy with no tolerance for wimps.
But with intense media and regulatory focus on oil prices adding complexity to a current restructuring in the organization, Michel was now facing an internal crisis that he had not foreseen. His blunt approach to fixing low performers in his executive committee wasn’t working.
In the past year, two members of his team had disappeared into a “black hole” of long-term sick leave (as he thought of it). On Monday, a third person — a colleague who often picked up slack for others as well as being a source of great ideas — advised him that she had been put on leave due to stress-related burnout. Michel was annoyed with her, but also with himself. Now his team was seriously compromised. Why hadn’t he seen this coming? What was going on? He was angry about losing three team members. He himself would be ashamed of being diagnosed with burnout — or whatever it was called — and sent off for weeks of “paid vacation.”
When the head of HR met with him to discuss the situation, Michel started with his usual bluster, but it soon became apparent that he had missed many warning signals. When he heard that the developments in his team had caused a disturbing ripple effect in the company, Michel had to admit that his take-no-prisoners leadership style might be a problem.
The tipping point of distress
A recent study suggested that work-related stress in the UK in 2015-2016 accounted for 37% of all ill-health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health across all industries and professions. This study identified workload pressure (including tight deadlines and too much responsibility) and lack of managerial support as the main work factors mentioned by employees causing work-related stress. This raises a long-recognized conundrum: pressure to perform is only effective to a certain, unpredictable degree. Positive stress, also known as “eustress,” helps keep people energized and alert. However, the boundary between eustress and “distress” — harmful stress — can be quickly crossed, catching managers and employees unprepared. Everyone has a tipping point — influenced by physiological as well as psychological factors — when stress or pressure leads to decreasing performance and, if not addressed, eventually to burnout.
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Although workplace stress and burnout is a hot topic, it is rarely discussed in senior executive teams. Many executives like Michel think of it as a problem that affects other, weaker, people. It is often self-diagnosed as a lack of sleep — an insignificant side effect of a high-profile executive lifestyle. But there is more to it. And given our experience the cost can be enormous. Organizations lose substantial amounts of money because of bungled deals, misguided decisions, or cover-up of mistakes that can be linked to work-related stress.
Evaluating signs of stress
Inspired by aviation and medical best practices for handling crises, we set out to develop a simple yet robust protocol that could help executives like Michel and his HR director anticipate cases of potential burnout. A robust protocol is one that is easy to remember and clearly pinpoints the critical issues that must be addressed. A classic, and widely used example of such a protocol is the APGAR scoring system, introduced in 1952 by Dr. Virginia Apgar, which is used to quickly summarize the health of a newborn baby. The medical APGAR score is effective because the easy-to-recall acronym — including assessments such as Appearance, Pulse, and so on — serves as a protocol for rapidly taking stock of the newborn’s overall medical condition within minutes.
Building on the effectiveness of this type of quick assessment, we developed the Stress-APGAR barometer. Rather than being a test, survey, or assessment tool, the Stress-APGAR provides a set of guidelines that help executives think about and articulate factors that may lead to burnout.
Our Stress-APGAR acronym recalls five key areas of potential pressure overload. These are:
A for appearance: How does the person look? Does he/she seem overly tired? Has he/she been gaining or losing weight? Is there any indication of substance abuse?
P for performance: A decrease in performance, particularly over time, may be linked to increasing distress. On the other hand, a forced effort to over-perform — becoming a workaholic — is also a warning sign.
G for growth tension: Growth is a result of learning and stretch goals. Everyone is different; some people take to new challenges easily, whereas others may find them more difficult. Is the person becoming bored? Or conversely, does the person seem overwhelmed?
A for affect control: “Affect” is another word for “emotion.” Everyone has good and bad days, but most people can regulate their emotions in a way that is appropriate for the workplace. However, noticeable and lasting changes in emotional state —including emotional outbursts or high and low mood swings — can be related to an overload of physical and psychological pressure.
R for relationships: Personal relationships are an essential part of mental health. In situations of increased stress, it is possible to observe deterioration in the quality of relationships at work, including social isolation.
Stress-APGAR in practice
Stress-APGAR dimensions, when taken together, can be used as a barometer that indicates changes in a pressure system. Any sailor knows that high or low barometric pressure readings are essential data, providing information about potential danger and uncertain consequences. Similarly, if a work colleague has shown worrying changes in one or more Stress-APGAR dimension, the next step is to consider if the changes could become dangerous if ignored.
Each organization and individual is different, so we deliberately have not devised good or bad scores. But we have found that the Stress-APGAR can be used by anyone — at any level of the organization, but also family members and friends — to gather information and begin a conversation with the individual concerned.
Returning to Michel’s situation as our example, we can see that the problem festered — as it most often does — due to a reluctance to discuss stress among senior executives. Michel’s colleagues were obviously reluctant to talk to him about how his relentless pressure was affecting performance.
We asked senior executives what they would tell Michel to get him to consider a different approach. One executive who had worked in the oil industry told us: “Clearly, Michel’s approach to people is not working. He is not really listening to them. He seems to be quite tone-deaf concerning the danger signs of stress. It’s important for him to realize that people are different; that not everyone thinks like him. But given his mind-set, he may need help in becoming more familiar with the softer side of leading people.” Another executive told us: “Michel is writing off a lot of talent, and that’s really counter-productive. It’s pretty obvious: if people hate going to work, they will eventually leave. Ironically they will probably thrive once again in a better work environment — maybe with one of Michel’s competitors.”
If Michel decides to address the debilitating effect of work-place stress with his team, he could tackle what initially may be “undiscussable” by first sharing these Stress-APGAR dimensions with them. As a group, they might reach an agreement on how to act if concerns arise. By taking these fairly straightforward actions, Michel and his team could mitigate the risk of burnout in the future, and avoid the financial consequences that often follow.
The Stress-APGAR can be used over time to see whether there is an increase or decrease in the danger signs. A simple self-rating of 1-10 can be used, with the individual stating where they are today, and where they feel they could use some help to improve their score. If the individual is reluctant to discuss possible burnout, his or her colleagues could consider other, indirect actions. For example, senior team members could tell a CEO that his mood swings are affecting the way they work together. Indeed, increased empathetic attention to a person at risk can have a positive effect, reducing social isolation and eventually helping the individual to open up. Once trust is established in this way, it is often easier for the person at risk to make stress discussable instead of leaving the matter to external stress experts.
Our hope is that the Stress-APGAR could become a starting point for courageous conversations on how to create better places to work. From a sustainability perspective, it’s essential to create work environments where cases of stress imbalance are made discussable. And as Hans Selye, the father of modern stress research once said, “It is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”