New research sheds light on why executives persist in stressful work habits

New research sheds light on why executives persist with stressful work habits

There’s a fine line between enjoying the stimulation of a demanding job and feeling burnt out. Lloyds’ chief executive, Antonio Horta-Osorio made headline news in 2011 after being signed off sick with stress and exhaustion. As the recent suicides of two Swiss banking executives have shown, it’s often difficult for pressurised workaholics to admit the job has become too much. A recent US academic study provides some clues as to why senior executives persist in working to unhealthy levels; while research by serviced office provider Business Environment reveals how UK office workers are also prone to stressful work habits. One fifth (21%) take work home at least one to two times a week, and one in five employees (19.6%) have taken time off work due to stress.

The findings underline the negative effects stress can have in the workplace. As many as one in twelve (7.87%) admit that they have shouted at a colleague as a result of stress, while 3.4 per cent have thrown something across the room and 2 per cent said they have sworn in front of a client or customer.

In the Kansas State University study, “Workaholism and Well-Being,” researchers led by doctoral student Sarah Asebedo, conducted a study using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and found a preliminary link between workaholics and reduced physical and mental well-being.

“We found workaholics — defined by those working more than 50 hours per week — were more likely to have reduced physical well-being, measured by skipped meals, said Asebedo. “Also, we found that workaholism was associated with reduced mental well-being as measured by a self-reported depression score.”

Asebedo explained that to understand why people work overtime even when they know it is not good for their well-being, the researchers used Gary S. Becker’s Theory of the Allocation of Time, a mathematical analysis for choice measuring the cost of time.

“It looks at the cost of time as if it were a market good,” Asebedo said. “This theory suggests that the more money you make, the more likely you are to work more. If you are not engaged in work-related activities, then there is a cost to the alternative way in which time is spent. Even if you understand the negative consequences to workaholism, you may still be likely to continue working because the cost of not doing so becomes greater.”

According to Asebedo, Becker’s theory suggests that not only can working more make a person wealthier but it also creates less leisure time to spend money. As income increases a person may be more likely to work more and create an unhealthy habit. Which helps explain why senior executives can continue to work impossibly long hours, despite knowing its harmful effects.

For those in less exulted roles, the lessons on reducing stress are no less stark. Business Environment, which surveyed 1,500 people from a range of sectors including finance, retail, hospitality, health and property, found that factors such as unrealistic deadlines, pressure from above and lack of support were the biggest culprits in causing stress.

“Many companies have slipped into creating a culture where employees are expected to work all hours at any cost,” commented David Saul, managing director at Business Environment. “This research clearly shows that this is actually having a detrimental effect, not only on employee health and wellbeing, but also on the wider business with billions being lost in days taken off sick.

“I believe all employers have a responsibility to challenge the status quo and cultivate an office environment where employees feel supported by senior staff and able to voice concerns before stress levels go through the roof. Of course, there will be times when employees are required to go above and beyond, but this should never be at the detriment to their health.”