Hard Times

Why finance executives are overworked and under stress.

What does it feel like to work 100 hours a week? It feels like never doing anything but work. It’s being so tired at the end of the day that you don’t trust yourself to make good decisions until you get some sleep. It’s almost 15 hours a day, seven days a week, where you pay full attention to your employer — and no attention to yourself.

As the former CFO and COO of Propel Software Corp., an early-stage Silicon Valley company, Mary Korn knows exactly how it feels. As an East Coaster, the 44-year-old Korn prided herself on her “incredible work ethic” and put in up to 80 hours a week. But at Propel, it seemed that she was always being dragged into meetings with other department heads who wanted her to sign off on things, examine every contract for potential accounting implications, and, sometimes, just hold their hands through a tough deal. Exacerbating the situation were badly outdated financial systems. She and her equally exhausted controller would routinely double-check each other’s work and spreadsheets to make sure they weren’t making revenue-recognition errors.

In August, after four and a half years, she finally quit Propel, a move driven by the loss of anything resembling balance in her life. It was a move she now realizes she should have made four years earlier. That was when she was diagnosed with a potentially deadly illness and her boss’s first question was, “Do you think you’re going to miss any work because of it?”

Korn may have learned a hard lesson, but the majority of finance executives polled by CFO magazine have not. Most are still in the same sort of toxic environment that she fled. Sixty-two percent of senior finance executives responding to CFO’s poll indicate that they are under “great” or “very great” pressure at work, and 68 percent say they’re feeling more pressure than they did two years ago. They report working more hours — 52.9 hours a week on average, up from 49 two years ago — and 61 percent firmly believe that they and their employees do more work than anyone else in the company.

Perhaps most disturbing, 63 percent believe that all this stress is having a harmful effect on their health. “The expectations for executive productivity seem to be insatiable,” says Dr. David L. Roberts, medical director of Emory Executive Health, at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. “The attitude is that if you’re not working 24/7, you may not belong on this team. So these executives are spending their emotional and physical bank accounts faster than they can replenish them. [And they] aren’t able to relax, unwind, and recharge their batteries,” says Roberts.

Wait a minute. Finance has always been a stressful career populated by Type A personalities. But how did we end up in a world where finance executives are willing to put their health at risk for a job?

Some see the situation reflected in an old adage: toss a frog into hot water and it will jump out. Toss a frog into cold water and slowly turn up the heat, and the frog will stay until it boils to death. The heat has definitely been turned up in finance over the past few years. The scope creep of financial regulations, Sarbanes-Oxley and Section 404 in particular, has added to already heavy workloads and created a new sense of urgency — a source of stress mentioned by 41 percent of respondents. Meanwhile, worsening economic conditions have led to staff cuts and hiring freezes — causing stress among 40 percent of those surveyed.

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