Stress: Is it surprising bosses are stricken?

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Antonio Horta-Osorio, chief executive of Lloyds banking group, has been signed off work for medical reasons, reportedly stress and "extreme fatigue". But should people be surprised that bosses suffer?

Memorably described as the financial world's Jose Mourinho, there were high hopes for Antonio Horta-Osorio's stewardship of Lloyds.

The Portuguese boss was said to have "a laser-like focus" and was so dedicated to the job, that on his first day at Lloyds he arrived so early that the front doors were not even open.

Now his temporary departure has left share prices down and employees, investors and the government - who have a large stake - wondering when he will return.

The financial sector and big businesses have always been known as a high-pressure environment.

Geraint Anderson, a former City analyst and "Cityboy" columnist, describes the City as having a "testosterone-fuelled, macho" culture.

"The 'lunch is for wimps, if you want a friend buy a dog' culture is just as strong now if not stronger," he says.

The average working week in the finance sector is about 60 hours and that's just during the week - people often work at the weekend as well.

One might then argue that it's not surprising that Horta-Osorio is suffering from "extreme fatigue". But at the same time there is a strong expectation that big company bosses, like senior politicians, should have an unusually high tolerance for the stresses of working all the time.

But in reality, the work ethos of high finance makes stress a bigger problem by discouraging people from seeking help.

"Mentioning stress or fatigue or anything that's perceived as a sign of weakness is sneered at, which makes the whole environment difficult for those who are stressed," says Anderson.

"People bottle it up and don't share it so to have to put up a front of invulnerability can be a difficult thing to maintain, especially doing a hyper-competitive job with long hours and with the added pressures of job losses."

Of course, stress is an issue for all workers. Amy Whitelock, senior policy and campaigns officer at Mind, says the key thing is that stress can affect people in different ways.

While ordinary workers suffer under the pressure of overwork, redundancy worries and poor work-life balance, senior managers may be less willing to speak up because of their position and the impact it could have on their careers.

"Everyone can experience stress. Senior people speaking out can be really powerful and help others to speak out," says Whitelock.

But what if you're at the top of the company?

"[Bosses] are not viewed as invulnerable masters of the universe. Some are good and I think a lot are doing well in conditions beyond their control," says Anderson.

However there is an assumption that "if they've climbed the greasy pole to get there then they have what it takes", he notes.

John Binns is one such executive who has been affected by this.

A partner for 10 years at accounting and consulting firm Deloitte, he was signed off work in 2007 with depression.

At the time, he thought it was the end of his career.

What surprised him was the reaction of his bosses who told him he was a valued member of the team. They said they wanted to do everything for him so that he could get back to work.

"That was a surprising message, I wasn't expecting to hear that. With depression, your self-esteem takes a huge blow so it was an extraordinary message for me," he says.

"People can get better and have a level of work they had before. What's happening is people aren't talking about it."

Ben Willmott, employee relations advisor for the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, says the working culture is dictated to by the top of the company.

"Chief executive teams have high levels of autonomy. They're used to working under pressure and managing their own workloads.

"In certain sectors at board level there is a sort of a belief that senior executives should be able to cope but executives should be looking after each other.

"Companies should look at resilience training for chief executives to look at how they manage their own stress and how they respond to pressure."

He says where there are signs of burnout, such as people sending emails on Sundays or at night regularly, then other team members should ask them if they're coping.

Everyone has periods of work where they have a bout of activity but if the unsustainable is becoming sustainable, then that's when help may be needed, according to Willmott.

"Pressure is a positive in a business environment but prolonged exposure to pressure is when you get problems."

When Binns returned to work, he set up a mental health champion scheme where employees can speak to any one of eight partners who have been trained in mental health issues.

It is outside of line management and HR and managers can even speak to them confidentially if they have concerns about staff they look after. The scheme is seen as ground breaking and other companies are implementing it.

"Because of my experience, my engagement with the company has been strong, my productivity has been better so it's paid them back," he says.

"We've got a long way to go - we can't make that culture change overnight."

And the culture is hard to address. What happened after the Lloyds announcement, falling share price and speculation about the chief executive's future, is just the sort of thing that adds to the pressure on bosses.

"People would be looking for strong leaders in a time of crisis," says Anderson.

And yet a crisis is just the time when a strong leader is most likely to be affected.

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