Hard Times

Why finance executives are overworked and under stress.

For the time that has to be spent in the office, experts generally preach a few familiar coping techniques — exercise, eat right, get plenty of sleep. But, of course, these practices are the first to go when stress hits. “When you’re tired and under stress,” says Olivia Mellan, a stress-management expert, “no matter how much self-help work you have done, you will always revert to your primitive mode of behavior, which is always dysfunctional.”

The trick, she says, is building a bridge between the dysfunctional you and the rational and thriving adult inside. The bridge can take a number of forms. For some, it’s writing down what’s stressing them out. For others, it’s a creative pursuit, like painting or music. Nolan, for example, is a part-time church musician, a hobby that he says “relaxes me in a lot of ways.” He also participates in a monthly men’s counseling group, where “work-life balance is becoming a much more popular topic of conversation,” he adds.

Taking breaks during work time is vital, too. Jodi Aronson Prohofsky, senior vice president of clinical operations at CIGNA Behavioral Health, suggests that executives avoid eating lunch at their desks. “If you’re eating while you’re working, you’re ingesting more stress,” she says. She also suggests putting a picture of your favorite place — a beach, your back deck, whatever — on your computer and taking a few minutes each day to just stare at it. “It may be counterintuitive to stop and stand still, but if you do and then you regroup, you’ll get far more done in the course of a day,” she says.

Roberts at Emory, on the other hand, thinks the solution may be a little more basic. “I think a half-hour walk every day is the best medicine,” he says. “[Executives] relax, they’re stretching muscles, and sometimes those 30 minutes without a BlackBerry is the only creative time they have.” Higginbotham, for example, despite his mammoth workweek, is totally committed to working out as often as possible. So is Stepan, who runs between 2 and 10 miles a day.

Still, all of the CFOs interviewed agreed that the most important thing they learned during their tenure in high-stress workplaces was that it is vital to push back when things get to be too much. “It’s very important to have boundaries on the way into a new job,” says Korn. “You’re a better employee if you spend time in the outside world.” That means setting limits both with the CEO and with the job itself. Says Rea, “I wouldn’t ride it out if that kind of [stress] happened here. I’d back out of the job instead. I wouldn’t go through what I went through before.”

A Hardy Few

As a Green Beret, David Higginbotham spent a year in Haiti as part of a mission sent in 1994 to the tiny nation to help expedite the democratic process. His mandate, and that of the men on his team, was to assist in setting up elections, install a trained police force, and help teach Haitians about human rights. No one, not the team nor the Haitians, was really sure how to properly proceed, or how it would all turn out. Higginbotham’s commander would fly in by helicopter from time to time to inspect the troops and see how things were going, and then he would fly right back out again.

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