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Last year Lloyds Bank boss António Horta-Osório became the best-known casualty of exhaustion at a UK company. Here, we present 10 tips on how to avoid burnout

This article was first published in the March 2012 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

When António Horta-Osório, chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group, announced last November that he was taking a couple of months off work because of fatigue caused by working too hard and too intensely, he sent a shockwave through the City. By the end of the day, the value of the bank on the stock market had plunged by almost £1bn and the rumour mill was speculating about which high-flier might be next to burn out.

The extended economic depression following the credit crunch has piled more pressures on ambitious financial professionals. There are still stellar rewards for those who make it to the top of large companies – the average salary and bonus for a financial director in a FTSE 100 company was £2m in 2010, according to Incomes Data Services. But the pressures of top finance jobs have never been greater. Senior roles are now more likely to involve placating anxious shareholders worried about a volatile share price, fronting profit warnings to market analysts, providing more financial data to decisions-makers, finding ways to keep corporate liquidity flowing when more customers are paying late, and worrying about what rising costs and falling revenues are doing to the company’s profit margins.

So is anybody still interested in those top jobs? Certainly. But, now more than ever, the finance professionals who make it to the executive suite must have much more than outstanding commercial, leadership and technical skills. They also need to know how to deal with stress and avoid burnout as they scramble their way up the corporate greasy pole.

Here are the top 10 strategies from a panel of experts for beating that balance-sheet burnout. 

1 Learn how to handle new sources of stress

Ambitious financial executives have to learn to handle new sources of stress, says Carole Spiers, author of Show Stress Who’s Boss. Such stresses include the need to spend more time at work, cope with a faster-paced business culture, manage email overload and run a finance department with fewer people. And one of the most stressful tasks of all in the present climate, she says, is trying to motivate staff who aren’t getting a pay rise.

Cary Cooper, distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, warns that it’s easy for top executives to become so addicted to their work that they forget the rest of their life. Overworking takes a physical and emotional toll, he says. ‘Long working hours damages personal relationships, which feeds back into your work.’

One of the problems is that managers who want to climb that greasy pole need to say ‘yes’ to a lot of what they’re asked to do, says Brendan Johnson, an ‘easyologist’ who runs coaching organisation Outside the Asylum. ‘That’s a source of stress especially when it’s difficult or even impossible to deliver on what’s asked.’

2 Treat other people right

Financial wizards on their climb to the top will work with different teams of people as their careers progress. But tomorrow’s leaders who trample on other promising accountants on the way up are storing up stress problems for the future, says Cooper. ‘If you’re exceedingly ambitious you may be tempted to play games which can come back and bite you,’ he warns. ‘If you’re going to do things like undermine competitive colleagues or not share information because it’s valuable, you may damage your career, because people remember when they’ve been badly treated. To reduce stress, you need to invest in relationships that work.’

3 Plan and prioritise your workload

Mike Clayton, author of Brilliant Time Management, advises time-pressed executives to minimise stress in two ways. First, use what he calls the ‘oats’ principle (outcomes, activities, time, schedule) to plan how you will spend a day or a week. ‘Make a note of the outcomes you want for tomorrow or next week,’ he says. ‘What do you want to be different when the week is over? Next, what activities will you need to carry out to achieve your outcome? Then estimate the time each activity will take. Finally, schedule the activities into your day or week to ensure that the time you need is protected.’

Second, Clayton says executives need to be willing to say ‘no’: ‘Say “no” when requests or opportunities are neither essential nor strategic and they don’t contribute to something important in your life, like relationships or your wellbeing.’

4 Use your time wisely

Cooper says that very ambitious executives tend to take too much on. ‘They want to be seen as superman or superwoman,’ he explains. ‘If they don’t use their time wisely, they can end up spending their time fire-fighting lots of different things, some more important than others.’ He adds that very ambitious people want to be everywhere – including social media, such as Facebook and Twitter – which may not be wise. ‘Use social media sparingly,’ he advises. ‘Think about which site is most important for networking. Remember that the best networking is still face to face.’

5 Become a great delegator

Delegation is the key to keeping stress levels in check, says Steve Crouch, financial director and co-founder of online accountancy firm Crunch. ‘Make sure you have the processes and right people in place to manage any problems that should arise – and be ready to adapt to deal with any bottlenecks,’ he says. ‘Make sure they filter down to all levels of your organisation. If a single person or team is left performing one time-consuming task, it can hold up the whole organisation.’

The trouble is that too many financial high-fliers don’t take the time to delegate. Or, worse, they delegate but then try to micro-manage. ‘There’s no point in delegating to other people and then watching everything they do because you might as well have done it yourself,’ points out Cooper. ‘You will cause more stress all round because people will get angry with you.’

6 Create a productive working environment

You can help to keep those stress levels under control by making sure that you work in a friendly environment, says Spiers. You need to ensure the ergonomics of the furniture and equipment in your office helps you work easily, without creating unnecessary fatigue. An office with daylight, restful colours, pictures, plants – even a fishtank – is likely to help reduce stress, she says.

But tackling the frustrations of modern technology is also important for finance professionals, who spend much of their time working with computers, adds Sam Reily, chief executive of Ansarada, a virtual data room provider for the finance and banking industries. ‘To avoid wasting time and getting frustrated gathering information, I constantly invest in fast IT equipment and software services that streamline – or, better still, eliminate – processes,’ he says. ‘It means less time wasted staring at screens or fewer process steps to get the same or better results. I find that if a product is designed well and is aesthetically pleasing, then it is more enjoyable and less stressful to use than one that’s not.’

7 Learn to handle difficult people

‘Fundamentally, I don’t believe there are difficult people, just difficult behaviours,’ says Clayton, who also authored Brilliant Stress Management. ‘Respond well to those behaviours and respect the person and you can train them to behave differently.’

Caroline Carr, author of How Not to Worry: How to Stop Anxiety Spoiling Your Life, recommends a three-step plan for dealing with difficult people. First, you state what the situation is to the person you find difficult; then you describe to them how it makes you feel; finally, you tell them what you would like to happen – and how you will both benefit. ‘This approach is great because it shows that you mean business without seeming hostile or aggressive in any way.’

As a former detective chief inspector in the Metropolitan Police, Jackie Keddy, co-author of Managing Conflict at Work, is used to handling difficult people. She recommends the ‘saw’ approach: situation (describe the situation under discussion), action (give the reason for a course of action), way forward (get agreement that it’s the most sensible approach). ‘It’s particularly effective in cutting to the chase when you need to address an uncomfortable topic with someone who is prone to throwing their rattle out of the pram,’ she says.

8 Manage your way around unreasonable demands

With organisations under financial pressure, it’s no wonder that financial executives are first in the firing line when the board is demanding the impossible. If you find yourself in this situation, you must speak up, advises Fiona Robson, senior lecturer in human resources management at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University. ‘In many instances, colleagues or executive team members are not aware of the competing pressures within job roles,’ she says. ‘This will remain the case if they are not updated. You may need to take a more assertive approach to explain why a deadline is not feasible – perhaps as a consequence of other commitments – and offer an alternative course.’

With unreasonable demands, it’s worth considering why they weren’t possible to deliver, argues Robson. Was it because the processes behind the demand were too complicated? ‘Identifying stressors is an important step in managing stress and reducing burnout in organisations,’ she says.

9 Stay calm when you deal with crises

For financial executives, crises have been coming far too regularly during the current recession. A lost big order, a collapse in earnings, a breach of banking convenants, a major debtor – all can precipitate a crisis in the company that the financial team have the prime job of resolving. It’s worth investing in some crisis management training, advises Robson. But the financial team also needs to be clear about what they can and can’t do and when they need to pull in managers with other specialist expertise. ‘Where crises require wider specialist input, managers should not be afraid to identify those who would be able to make a more valuable contribution to specific contexts,’ she says.

10 Develop a rewarding work/life balance

It’s very important to destress business life, says Graham Whiley, who was a high-flying FD at the age of 25 and went on to become MD of £800m-turnover Booker Foodservice in his early 30s. ‘You have to approach work-life balance with discipline and not in an unplanned and piecemeal fashion,’ he says. ‘It’s not just a “nice to do” when the chance arises.’

Whiley, now chief executive of HR consultancy Sagegreen, says: ‘So if you’re planning to go to the gym three times a week as part of your work-life balance, you should keep to the routine with the same diligence as if it were a high-level business meeting.’

Carr adds that financial executives need to learn about relaxing as well as spreadsheets: ‘Relaxing your body properly sends a message to your overworked nervous system that you don’t need to be in a state of high alert all the time. It will give your mind and body a chance to settle and bring everything back into balance.”

Peter Bartram, journalist

Last updated: 7 Apr 2014