Taking a break from the killer that is stress

By Cliff Taylor

The upper echelons of the corporate world have long been viewed as a brutal jungle where only the fittest survive. But even the hard nuts of the business world need holidays - and the long summer break can be a chance to de-stress.

The leave of absence taken before Christmas by Antonio Horta-Osorio, the head of Lloyds Banking Group in London, has focused attention on the exhaustion exacted by the workaholic corporate existence. It is becoming increasingly clear that these self-proclaimed rulers of the financial universe are human after all.

Of course highly paid, high-profile executives are not the only people who are suffering from the recent economic downturn. Minimum-wage earners putting in long hours on multiple menial jobs get worn out, too.

But the high stakes involved with huge financial transactions and the consequences that failure can have for themselves and others sometimes prove too much for success-obsessed executives.

Horta-Osorio is not the first leader to step down "due to illness" since the start of the global financial crisis. But others have been compelled to go further. In 2008, New Zealand-born financier Kirk Stephenson, chief operating officer at a private equity fund in London, killed himself by jumping in front of a train.

Aged 47 and married with a son, Stephenson was reportedly on a salary of about $700,000 a year but was so stressed about the banking crisis and its effect on his own situation that he decided to end his life.

Casualties have been mounting in the corporate world. In the past two to three years, a German billionaire also threw himself in front of a train after his debts spiralled. An Irish real-estate mogul shot himself after sustaining heavy financial losses in the banking crisis. The head of insurance at a major bank hung himself in a London hotel room and a French aristocrat slit his wrists after losing huge sums in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.

Sir Michael Hill is one of New Zealand's highest-profile business leaders, having built an international chain of about 250 jewellery stores and employing hundreds of staff. Speaking on the line from New York, he says there have been times in his life when the pressures have been intense.

"We'd be kidding ourselves if we said there are never times when the attention is on you and your head is whirling," says Hill. His ill-fated foray into selling shoes in 1992 was one of those times. "When I got out of the shoe business, that was a hard decision. You need to call on all your resources. But you do need to experience some hard times. If everything is easy, that's just airy-fairy floaty stuff."

But Hill says he used to worry far more during the 23 years he spent working for his uncle's jewellery business in Whangarei, before he struck out on his own to build a retail empire.

"I don't worry anymore," he says. "It's a matter of knowing when to back off and getting your priorities right. You can't do everything in life and you can't be all things to all people.

"To work extra long hours ... I find that quite silly and stupid. All it achieves is illness."

Auckland doctor Frances Pitsilis is another high achiever familiar with the pressures of success. As a GP specialising in chronic illness and a media consultant on health issues, she admits she feels "time pressures".

"I have patients waiting 2 months to see me, but I try not to let that worry me. As a workaholic, I know that's my Achilles heel. But when I start ramping it up, I can recognise it and take steps to make life more manageable."

Pitsilis says that as a young doctor she has witnessed the kind of "macho" behaviour shown by many high-flyers, who are determined to work harder and longer than everybody else.

She ended up "burning out" in 1999 and, after counselling, became involved in the field of workplace stress. "It's a common problem for people like doctors and lawyers - I see people all the time in the professions and higher management who are going to burn out. And the problem with burnout is you don't see it happening. That's why these people get heart attacks and strokes."

She says a lot of high-flyers are driven people who suffer from stress when they feel they are losing control.

"There may be a culture within the workplace which expects you to work 80 to 100 hours a week High-flyers tend to have a personality we call Type A. They get burned out because they are on full all the time. They get wired and tired. They run out of hormones, nutrients, gastric acid, everything gets out of balance and they get sick."

Oli Hille knows what it's like to feel stressed. He spent several years working as a chartered accountant for a big oil company based in Wellington. He was studying and spending his "spare" time building up a million-dollar property portfolio, rushing out at lunchtimes to view houses with real-estate agents. He was working 70 hours a week and feeling terrible.

"I used to lie in bed at night and, although I hadn't done any exercise, my heart was racing. I generally don't struggle with negative thoughts but I started thinking, 'I could actually die in my sleep I am so stressed."'

He had an income of more than $150,000 a year but he was so stressed that one day he couldn't even summon the energy to open a letter sent to him by his mother.

He went to a doctor and was told if he didn't change his lifestyle, he would become seriously ill.

His reaction was to quit his job and move to London for his OE. But he soon fell into his old ways again, working 50 hours a week plus 1 hours commuting each day in a job paying about $300,000 a year.

When he and his wife returned to New Zealand, Hille knew it was time to give up "all that crazy stuff". He set up an online recruitment company and started living life again. "That was the moment I decided I would do some kind of business that suited my lifestyle. I could take my cellphone to a cafe. I could wait 24 or 48 hours to respond to emails."

He has recently published an e-book, Creating the Perfect Lifestyle, which has been a hit on Amazon bestseller lists. Yet despite a hectic schedule promoting the book, he says that project has caused him "zero stress".

Michael Hill practises transcendental meditation and pursues his passions of golf and the violin to ensure he gets that balance right.

While in New York last month, he mixed business with pleasure, working on "branding strategies" while helping with the marketing of a DVD by his friend, violinist Mark Kaplan. But enjoying the work you do is key, he insists. "I get wildly excited and other people might see that as stressful."

So, the multi-million-dollar deals, the ever-expanding empire, the 2000 employees - does it ever weigh on his mind? "No," he says. "I feel more stress playing golf than doing deals."

- Herald on Sunday

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