Executives ‘prone to psychological distress’

Executive stress

By Cecily-Anna Bennett

Australia’s executives are twice as likely to experience symptoms of mood and personality disorders as the general population, according to new research conducted by Travis Kemp and Suzy Green.

Kemp says 38 per cent to 40 per cent of the executive population experience psychological distress compared with 20 per cent of the general population.

“While we’re seeing depression, anxiety, stress and related disorders that most people would think were pretty normal in executive populations, we’re also finding elevations of personality-based disorders as well: narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorders and, in extreme cases, elements of antisocial disorder,” Kemp says.

“There’s a lot of data surrounding the impact of having to work for a boss for, example, who’s depressed or suffering from some sort of personality disorder.

“What we see are lower levels of engagement, higher levels of stress-related lost time, certainly high elevations of bullying behaviour in the workplace and a much higher frequency of sick days, by employees who are miserable at work.”

The findings suggest that factors to blame for psychological distress include highly-competitive work environments, increasing pressures to perform and the effects of the global financial crisis.

Michelle Grow, chief executive at Davidson Trahaire Corpsych, Australia’s largest employee assistance program provider, has noticed four concerning trends in the workplace, evident during the past two years and increasing at an alarming rate. These include bullying and harassment (or perceived bullying and harassment), stress, conflict and aggressive behaviour.

Davidson Trahaire Corpsych’s organisational data shows a significant increase in the number of people representing with anger issues from 74 per cent in the past five years with a 16 per cent rise in the past 12 months. Similarly, anxiety is up 19 per cent in the past 12 months and 116 per cent during five years. Work-related stress has elevated by 17 per cent in 12 months — 127 per cent during the past five years — and there has been a 5 per cent increase in depression in 12 months with a 50 per cent rise during the past five years.

“There would be very few organisations I talk to that do not have a concern about stress across their population, particularly with regard to their senior managers,” Grow says.

“We’re seeing people working harder, meaning they’re doing a lot more hours, but they’re not necessarily more effective, so there’s a bigger personal impact.

“Related to that are people who want to over-control things, we see anger emerging, we see bullying, over-work, situations of conflict, people who are reacting rather than resolving.

“There are increasingly difficult market conditions out there. With regards to the executive population, the more they go into that space of high stress and high anxiety, the more they experience impaired functioning.

“Their mental agility is not at the level it needs to be, they fatigue more easily, they have impaired decision-making and of course all of that opens them up to more risk. So we see an increase in conflict at work and also at home.

“Some of the best performers will never ever indicate that they are struggling from the pressure or the stress. The more senior you go, the more reluctance there is to say `I’m struggling with the pressure of the role.’ They have a lot of concern about it indicating a sign of weakness. There is an element of stigma around the ability to cope with stress and anxiety.”

Article from The Australian, March 2011.

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