How to pass the stress test


There is a great scene in the 1990 movie Days of Thunder. Tom Cruise is a race car driver screaming around a racetrack in a noisy blur of smoke and color. Coming into a straightaway, he puts his foot right to the floor. The car roars, the tachometer leaps up into the red, and the engine promptly explodes. The car loses all speed and limps to the side of the track, useless. Cruise had pushed it too far, and as a consequence, it died.

Unfortunately, many executives in the business world have also got their foot to the floor, unaware that burnout lies just around the corner. The consequences can be disastrous and costly, not only for the individual but also for the company.

I should know. For more than 25 years, I believed I could accomplish just about anything professionally. And I often did. Following medical school, I enjoyed 15 years of practice before accepting a senior leadership role in PeaceHealth, a nonprofit health-care organization in the Pacific Northwest. My job quickly grew until I had responsibility for corporatewide clinical quality and all information technology initiatives. In 1994, PeaceHealth launched an aggressive campaign to implement an advanced IT infrastructure supporting both operations and clinical care. The centrepiece of the effort was our Community Health Record project, a network of communitywide medical records designed to support patient care in each of the communities we serve.

Little did I know how difficult this role would prove to be. Resistance was monumental and seemed to come from everywhere in the organization–from skeptical board members and executives to hostile physicians. My workday typically began by 6 a.m., when I would send e-mails and return voice messages from home. Arriving at the office before 7:30 a.m., my days were characterized by a blur of conference calls, tense meetings and voluminous e-mail exchanges. Around 7 p.m., I would stagger out of the office to catch a quick meal with my wife, before heading to my home office where I would continue working until 10 or 11 p.m. My four sons grew accustomed to not seeing their dad even on the weekends.

One morning, I found it difficult to even get out of bed. Despite the resistance, with the staunch support of my CEO, we literally moved mountains. In roughly four years, PeaceHealth went from virtually no automation to a highly advanced infrastructure including a full-blown electronic medical records system supporting care in all of our hospitals and clinics with nearly everything online.

However, managing the project was the most stressful job I had ever undertaken. In the summer of 2000, my engine reached its breaking point.

Each night I would lay in bed and replay my day at work, sleeping only a few hours. At the office, I uncharacteristically began snapping at people. My colleagues began wondering what happened to the affable, mild-mannered, resilient “old John.” Finally, one October morning, I realized that I could not go on. I literally had no reserve, finding it difficult to even get out of bed, much less manage my professional responsibilities. Admitting this to myself was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but it was also one of the most important.

My boss, the corporate CEO, graciously granted me a three-month sabbatical. A couple of days into it, I sought professional help from the Professional Renewal Center, an outpatient center dedicated to helping executives deal with stress. It turned out to be exactly the right thing to do.

The Stress Epidemic

During this ordeal, I learned that I was far from unique. The incidence of work-related stress is rapidly rising in today’s high-speed business world. With greater demands at work and new technology that blurs the boundary between home and job, it is increasingly hard to “switch off.” Several recent studies show that stress in the workplace is skyrocketing. According to a new study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, more than half of working Americans view job stress as a major problem in their lives. That’s more than double the percentage in research conducted 10 years ago.

Burned-out workers become disillusioned, frustrated, resentful and aggressive. Their work performance may shift from impressive to barely adequate, or they may leave the organization. The bottom line is that this can be very costly for companies, especially as burnout tends to target employees who are highly dedicated–just the workers you want to keep.

I was lucky. With rest, counseling and introspection, I rediscovered myself and my zest for life. Equally important, I learned vital coping and stress management skills that have allowed me to return to work and be as productive as before, yet with a healthier balance of my professional and personal life. I feel as though I have been given a great gift. I returned to work armed with new insights on leadership. I learned that one’s ability to lead is not strictly based on MBA-like skills. The efficacy of leadership also depends on how you respond to the demands and challenges of your position, internal conflicts or interpersonal struggles. By better understanding myself and my response to my environment, I was vastly better prepared to handle the complexities of my role. I have learned that if a situation begins to trigger anxiety or stress, I should quickly recognize it and identify the reason. If these internal conflicts are recognized, they are almost always easy to resolve, allowing me to focus on the bigger picture. This has allowed me to approach even the most complex and demanding situation with the calm, dispassionate demeanor necessary to resolve it. In addition, I have learned to manage my personal life as rigorously as my professional life. This includes shutting down every night no later than 7 p.m. to pursue personal interests, and religiously guarding my weekends and regular vacations.

By demanding this balance in my life, I have become more productive, not less. Those around me have seen a noticeable difference. Colleagues have complimented me on my equanimity even in the most difficult situations. They frequently comment that it is nice to see the “old John” back. Many have privately told me they admire my willingness to seek help and openly share my experience.

There is no question that I could not have negotiated this significant life challenge without the strong and unwavering support of those around me, particularly my wife and family. In addition, many PeaceHealth colleagues were supportive, especially my boss, PeaceHealth CEO John Hayward. Without his commitment and support, it is much less likely that my journey toward recovery would have been successful.

A year ago, PeaceHealth launched an initiative to improve the patient experience and help reduce stress among its employees. In my case, PeaceHealth fulfilled that mission in a deeply personal way. For that, I will always be indebted.