Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Stressed out? Drop that BlackBerry and go home

From last Saturday's Globe & Mail:

Overworked executives looking for relief must carve out personal time, WALLACE IMMEN writes


One thing Trish Wheaton has been unable to escape is that every step up the career ladder has eroded the amount of time she has left for the rest of her life.

"By the time you are president, you have to recognize that the job is a 24/7 commitment," says Ms. Wheaton, who has been president of Toronto-based marketing company Wunderman Canada since 1998.

But she says she didn't want that to happen at the expense of her husband and son. So to take control of her personal life, she literally schedules time in her agenda each day to go home "and reconnect with my family and decompress." But carving out time for a personal life is becoming more difficult for managers and executives, who are increasingly being controlled by their jobs, according to a new study.

In fact, the prestige and material advantages of higher job status are being outweighed by the personal costs of moving up the corporate ladder, concludes University of Toronto sociology professor Scott Schieman. He's co-author, along with Yuko Whitestone of the University of Maryland and Karen van Gundy of the University of New Hampshire, of the study The Nature of Work and the Stress of Higher Status, published in the current Journal of Health and Social Behaviour.

The study asked 1,000 employees at different levels of responsibility in Toronto businesses to rate their ability to escape the pressures of work in their personal lives. This "work-to-home conflict" was lowest for both men and women in unskilled occupations and was, on average, 25-per-cent higher among managers and executives.

And the conflict grows with the level of responsibility. In the survey, 44 per cent of executives said they routinely think about work-related problems while they are at home and 25 per cent said work regularly interferes with their family life.

The numbers are almost as high at lower management levels, with 42 per cent of mid-level executives and 41 per cent of administrative professionals saying they routinely think about things going on at work while at home. That compares with 18 per cent of sales people surveyed and 11 per cent of non-skilled workers.

That represents a shift from previous generations, Prof. Schieman says. "It was long assumed that people in lower occupational levels tend to have it worse in terms of mental and physical health and job satisfaction because they have less control and authority in their work," he says.
Studies done before 2000 generally reported executives had the highest levels of control over their personal lives, because they had power and prestige and could compartmentalize their work and have time for themselves after leaving the office, he explains.

But technology has ended all that. "The demands for many higher-status workers are now becoming never-ending. And that's in large part because of things that might be seen as helping people become more productive and efficient, like e-mail, cellphones and BlackBerrys," Prof. Schieman says.

"The career message is the nature of the workplace is changing. The things we typically consider favourable work qualities, like a lot of authority and variety in their work and a lot of involvement, come at a price."

But that doesn't mean you have to abandon dreams of reaching the corner office to have a life -- as long as you develop strategies to keep the price to a minimum, says Eric Jackson, president and chief executive officer of Toronto-based executive coaching company Jackson Leadership Systems Inc.

"The most important step for executives is to acknowledge that this is a serious issue. A lot of managers don't recognize work-life imbalance and the stress that comes with it until they are told by their spouse that it is creating a problem in the relationship" or by their doctor that their stress is hurting their health, Dr. Jackson says.

Once they acknowledge the need to make a change, Dr. Jackson advises overworked executives to set up a plan to create more balance between work and home.

To start, he recommends executives figure out what tasks they can delegate to others.
"A lot of times people get promoted into executive positions because they are simply very efficient at getting work done. But as they rise in responsibility, they need to realize they may be taking on too much."

It's also important to carve out time for physical activity. Being sedentary can result in weight gain and rising blood pressure, but also reduce energy levels, drag down moods and, over time, you are less able to focus your thinking.

Equally important is to make a commitment to setting up non-work time at home, Dr. Jackson says.

He recommends committing to be home for dinner with the family, and setting limits on work and personal time. He suggests an 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. rule.

"Ask everyone in the team not to send messages or expect replies outside of those hours."
These are just the kinds of strategies Ms. Wheaton has adopted. She avoids answering phone messages or looking at e-mails during meal times, and tries to clear office problems from her mind as she spends time with family and friends.

Crises can still erupt and if a call from the corporate brass comes in, she says "I still have to answer it."

But at least she can lead from home. As president, it's her decision alone whether she stays in the office or goes home, Ms. Wheaton says.

"So there is still an advantage to being at the top."

Strategies for the stressed

Define the problem. Write down the issues that cause you stress. Taking steps to reduce these issues will help you relax in your off time.

Set a goal. Too often, executives fall into a career path without understanding why they chose it. Ask yourself, "What do I want to accomplish for the duration of my career?" and set goals to achieve it.

Stay healthy. Exercise, sleep and a healthy diet should be priorities. You can't keep running without taking time to recharge the batteries.

Make time for your family It's not a sign of weakness if you don't pull an 80-hour week in the office.

Don't bottle it up. Talk to your spouse and discuss with a trusted friend or executive coach your workload. It can help you frame strategies to reduce the burden.

Look ahead. Don't waste time dwelling on past miscues. Once you set goals, move forward on

Work with your weaknesses. By recognizing your weaknesses, you can work to improve your skills or delegate tasks to people who are strong where you are weak.

Be thankful for what you have. When you get stressed out, stop and ask yourself, "What am I thankful for? That will put things in perspective."


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