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Home > Research Articles > The Last Taboo- It's not sex. It's not drinking. It's stress-and it's soaring.


Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Monday, October 28, 2002

By Cora Daniels

For John Haughom, it started about two years ago.

The stress. Not the mundane, I-have-to-pick-up-the-kids-but-my-meeting-is- running-late-and-will-I-ever-get-that-report-done-by-morning? stress. But stress with a capital "S." When picking up the kids and late meetings and morning deadlines become just too much to handle.

Before the summer of 2000, the 54-year-old senior VP for infotech at PeaceHealth, a private network of hospitals in the Pacific Northwest, could accomplish just about anything at work. He would start his day by 6 a.m., sending e-mails and returning voice messages from home. By 7:30, when he got to work, the meetings would begin. Forget lunch: Soon Haughom would be lost in the dreaded phone/ meeting/e-mail triangle (Bermuda's less glamorous cousin). He'd stumble out of the office around 7 p.m. in time to catch a quick bite with his wife, Frances, before heading into his home office, where he worked until 11 p.m. every night. "I could move mountains if I put my mind to it," he says of those days. "That's what good executives do."

But that summer Haughom found he couldn't move them anymore. He began to lie in bed and replay his day at work, sleeping only a couple of fitful hours a night. At the office he began snapping at people. "He just wasn't himself," says his boss, PeaceHealth CEO John Hayward. On the phone with his wife one morning, Haughom broke down. "Frances," he began. His voice was shaky, his heart was racing, and he couldn't stop sweating. The phones in his office were ringing as they did every morning, but he ignored them. "I've got to do something," he told her. "I can't go forward."

A couple of days later Haughom checked himself in for a three-week stay at the Professional Renewal Center, an in-patient clinic 30 miles outside Kansas City that helps executives deal with addictions, depression, or, in his case, stress. Afterward Haughom spent two more months at home before he was ready to return to work. "It was amazingly hard," he says of his ordeal. "Some people have alcohol problems. Stress was my problem."

He is far from alone. A host of new studies and plenty of anecdotal evidence show that stress in the workplace is skyrocketing. Blame it on the economy, terrorism, the new 24/7 workweek, corporate scandals--did we mention the economy? Whatever the cause, stress levels are at record highs. "People are absolutely nuts, stressed off the map," says Dr. Stephen Schoonover, author of Your Soul at Work and head of the executive development firm Schoonover Associates, which helps executives combat stress and balance their lives. He has seen his practice surge 30% over the past two years. Like each of the dozens of stress experts we talked to--MDs, psychiatrists, therapists, workplace gurus--Schoonover says, "I've never seen it this bad."

The statistics are startling. According to a new study by the federal government's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, more than half the working people in the U.S. view job stress as a major problem in their lives. That's more than double the percentage in similar studies a decade ago. The number of people who called in sick due to stress has tripled in the past four years. Fully 42% of employees--double the percentage a year ago--think their co-workers need help managing stress. In an annual survey released last month by workplace research firm Marlin Co., 29% of respondents put themselves in the highest category of stress--extreme or quite a bit--the highest percentage in the poll's six-year history. And it's not just here in the U.S. This year the European Community officially dubbed stress the second-biggest occupational-health problem facing the continent.

Ten years ago--the last time experts warned that stress was out of control, in part because of a shaky economy--Dr. James Campbell Quick, president of the U.S. branch of the International Stress Management Association and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, used to say that we were not more stressed than we had been; people were just becoming more aware of their stress. "I don't think that is the case this time around," Quick says. "We have a problem." Dr. Scott Stacy, clinical program director of the Professional Renewal Center, estimates that the average executive will skate dangerously close to burning out two or three times in his career. And the price tag is high. The American Institute of Stress, a research group, estimates that stress and the ills it can cause--absenteeism, burnout, mental health problems--cost American business more than $300 billion a year.

What's notable about today's wave of stressed-out workers is that it rises all the way to the top. Lack of control is generally considered one of the biggest job stressors, so it used to be thought that middle managers carried the brunt: Sandwiched between the top and the bottom, they end up with little authority. Powerful CEOs were seen as the least threatened by stress. But in today's tough economy, top executives don't have as much control as they used to. Now that the corner suite has become scandal central, senior executives are complaining that they can't get anyone to listen to them--the very same stressor cited most commonly by those at the bottom of the ladder. Then there's the "stress of success": CEOs who perform exceptionally well are often expected to do just as well in every other aspect of their lives, an impossible standard to meet.

"Stress is just part of the job," says Alexandra Lebenthal, CEO of Wall Street securities firm Lebenthal & Co. The past year has been particularly stressful for Lebenthal and her staff: The 75-year-old, family-run firm was acquired by the MONY Group a month after the Twin Towers crumbled outside its windows. "Fortunately or unfortunately, [stress] is part of our character building," Lebenthal says. "But there is a moment when you think, I don't need any more character building. What I need is a vacation."

But if you think that going on vacation is hard--and studies show that 85% of corporate executives don't use all the time off they're entitled to--seeking treatment for stress is even harder. Being able to handle stress is perhaps the most basic of job expectations; it is at the core of not just doing good work but doing work, period. So among the corporate elite, succumbing to it is considered a shameful weakness. "I hear a lot of people saying, 'It's tough.' But executives don't use the 's' word," says Manhattan executive coach Dr. Dee Soder. While some executives may talk openly about their problems with alcohol, sex addiction, depression, and dyslexia, stress has become the last affliction that people won't dare admit to. Most senior executives approached by FORTUNE who are undergoing treatment for stress--and even many who aren't--refused to talk on the record about the topic. "Nothing good can come out of having your name in a story like this, not in these times," one CEO said through his therapist.