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Prescription for executives

Managers are at risk of being permanently burdened with various tasks and are in danger of living under constant stress. These factors are often the result of their own choice rather than some necessary evil. Wojciech Eichelberger, psychologist and psychotherapist, talks about medical conditions common among high-level executives and he explains the causes of these ailments.

The interview was conducted by Joanna Zapała, psychologist and lecturer at SWPS University.

Joanna Zapała: People in top executive positions carry the heaviest burden of accountability for the effective operations organizations. They are required to be flexible, to quickly react to change, and to manage employees in a chaotic and volatile environment. What psychological consequences can they suffer, if they work in this type of environment for many years?

Wojciech Eichelberger: If to the list of the above-mentioned external stressors, you add things like frequent travel, time zone changes, late business dinners, erratic diet, uncomfortable beds in hotels, noise, excessive amount of information that needs to be processed, the number of people that executives must meet, talk to and remember, the lack of at least two-week revitalizing vacations, the lack of physical exercise, prolonged separation from the family, dwindling friendships outside of the work environment and decreasing fitness levels due to age, then these factors are enough to lead to the inevitable burnout and/or depression, after a few years. However, to complete the picture of people who work so hard, one needs to include the burdens resulting form the psychological makeup of executives, such as CEOs. Some of the characterizes that are frequently found in this professional group include: perfectionism (nothing is ever good enough), exaggerated sense of responsibility (other people are not responsible enough, they will not do this right, I don’t trust them), hypochondria (I don’t trust my body, I am afraid of it), and narcissistic tendencies (I am never good enough, others may find out about it and I will lose my reputation). As the result, people who are stressed by all these factors may develop anxiety, a compulsive-depressive disorder or a paranoid disorder. Sometimes one’s body develops fear of flying or fear of travelling to protect itself from stress and anxiety or to counteract the unfulfilled social needs and to allow the super manager to stay at home at last. These are the most common potential consequences of a prolonged and irresponsible self-management.

Regeneration is vital

The boss should set goals, create a vision and convince the subordinates to follow this vision. How does inadequate work-life balance impact professional burnout? What are the symptoms of this condition?

To maintain good health and stay fit, huge expenditures of energy must be regularly recharged. Just like with money. It is easy to spend all your life energy quickly, but it takes a long time to build it up again. During the day/night cycle, the proportions between the period of energy spending and the period of energy regeneration, which ensures wellbeing of the body, are as follows: 8 hours of work, 8 hours for relaxation, emotional regeneration and happy private life, and finally 8 hours of sleep. This means an 8-hour energy expenditure and 16 hours of regeneration. Athletes follow this lifestyle to stay in good physical form. Of course this ideal is not attainable for CEOs and other executives, but they should remember about it and they should realize that prolonged and radical deviation form this pattern results in a backlog of regeneration processes and the weakening of the immune system. Over time, it leads to energy burnout and/or to the dysfunction of many organs or system in the body and subsequently it may trigger a disease process. The first and most frequent symptoms of an imminent burnout are irritability, anger and sleeping disorders.

The long lasting neglect, abuse and mistakes related to one’s body begin to manifest themselves in various symptoms that exacerbate over time. Your body presents you with a balance sheet of all wrongdoings committed against it. It remembers everything, but if you begin to take care of it, appreciate it and treat it with respect, even in the last third of your life, your body will be able to forgive you a lot.

Physiological and psychological stressors

We know that a human being is a psychophysical whole, i.e. the physical and the psychological sphere are intertwined and they impact each other. Let’s look at the health consequences of a high level professional stress, for a moment.

There are two categories of stress factors: physiological and psychological. The physiological stressors include: noise, excessive amount of chaotic information and changes, too high or too low temperature, poor air quality, lack of nutritious food, poor lighting, poor workstation ergonomics, no breaks during workday, lack of physical activity, etc. These stressors are of objective nature and they are relatively easy to curb. However, psychological stressors are not objective due to their nature and it is much harder to switch them off. We live in the worlds created by our minds. We do not live in the real world, but in a certain interpretation of this world and in a system of beliefs. In a nutshell, we live in a subjective narration about the world. If this narration is negative and threatening, i.e. stress inducing, then regardless of the objective factors, your body will constantly remain in a defensive mode, ready for an emergency, which is called the fight-or-flight mode. If on the physiological level, this mode is constantly on, it causes excessive energy expenditure, blocks the regeneration mode, and it interferes with the immune, digestive, blood and the endocrine systems. At the emotional level, it blocks empathy, the self-control mechanism and it leads to irritability and angry outbursts. At the intellectual level, it impedes creativity, memory or access to your database. Many people owe up to 80 percent of their subjectively felt overload to their interpretation of the world.

Self-awarness, spirituality and stress

How important is the social and spiritual development of employees, which becomes possible thanks to the psychological maturity of the manager? 

The development of self-consciousness and self-awareness are the most important vehicles of psychological maturation. It enables the necessary process of adaptation and change related to your beliefs about yourself, other people and the world. Thanks to these changes the intensity of the psychological stressors is diminished, the relationships with other people, both at home and at work, improve and as the result the energy balance becomes better. One might say that you become more realistic or that you are in a better touch with reality. On the other hand, spiritual development allows you to get rid of the limiting, temporary and shallow identities, e.g. related to your role in the family, your professional role, your financial status or to some ideology. In a nutshell, it allows you to look at yourself and your problems from a distance and it alos turns off the need to prove your value at the cost of others. You can focus all your endeavors, both private and professional, on your goals rather than on yourself. It provides great relief to you and your broadly understood environment and it results in huge savings of energy, which you can utilize in a better way.

Not all types of tention mean stress

Stressors are factors that trigger entropy, tension and conflict in the system. Professor Aaron Antonovsky, expert in medical sociology, defines stressors as expectations, for which we do not have adaptive responses, therefore they result in tension. Do stressors always result in stress? We do know that stress can motivate and it can spur bursts of energy.

I think that this definition of stressors is too broad, because it includes all situations of learning new behaviors. Learning may cause some tension, but not always, and even if it does, then it is not always stress. Sometimes you learn with pleasure or you are in the optimal state of mobilization, i.e. your energy level and your intellectual abilities, including ability to learn fast and to adapt, are sufficient to cope with the requirements of the situation. Then, even under pressure, you can achieve a state of flow or a state of the optimal, effective and satisfactory performance. In this context, special competencies that control your reactions in a pressurized environment, so that your body does not cross the stress boundary, which triggers the fight-or-flight reaction, become very important. We teach these skills at the Institute of Psychoimmunology (IPSI), also via online training.

Managers begin to take care of themselves

Are executives interested in their own health? If yes, than to what degree?

It seems that increasingly so. Thanks to the mass media and thanks to the efforts of training companies, the knowledge about the risks associated with the level of stress that these people experience, becomes increasingly available and common.

What do executives do to take better care of their health?

They become enthusiasts of various forms of physical activity that gives them pleasure, which is especially important if you spend a lot of time sitting. Exercise allows you to flash out adrenaline, which blocks your immune system, and it successfully helps you to switch on the regeneration mode. Another visible symptom, indicating the concern for one’s wellbeing, is related to a conscious choice of following a healthy diet. However, an excessive concentration on one’s health may also be unnecessary, because it becomes a source of needless anxiety and unnecessary behaviors.

How do you know that you are on a dead end street? How can you find a way out?

People who for many years work hard, are under stress and do not have enough opportunities to counterbalance the pressure with exercise, loose awareness of their own bodies. Among other things, this is an effect of a prolonged adrenaline production and the excessive muscle tension. Blocked signals from your body and the lack of understanding what this body is telling you, may lead to hypochondria. When this happens, the body is perceived as a mysterious, unpredictable machine, which must be serviced by specialists all the time.


Aging executives

Human beings are thinking and feeling creatures, capable of self-reflection. They decide what is most important for them in life. Over time the socio-cultural contexts, which shape our specific responsibilities, change. Does the age of executives play a role in the way they manage their health?

The long lasting neglect, abuse and mistakes related to one’s body begin to manifest themselves in various symptoms that exacerbate over time. Your body presents you with a balance sheet of all wrongdoings committed against it. This stage is conducive to a greater focus on the needs of your body and to searching for effective, professional and adequate ways of meeting these needs. Your body remembers everything, but if you begin to take care of it, appreciate it and treat it with respect even in the last third of your life, your body is able to forgive you a lot. The body is very capable of regeneration. Just don’t stand in its way. The issue of taking care of oneself becomes important from the sociological, systemic and political point of view, due to the demographic crisis that even now, requires us to stay in the optimal readiness for work, which means in good physical, mental and intellectual condition, long after we reach the retirement age.

Two thirds of all illnesses, including cardiovascular disease or cancer are lifestyle related. How lifestyles of managers, directors and CEOs can impact the probability of developing a lifestyle-related medical condition?

First of all, underestimating the need for physical activity, which does a lot of good. For example, it relaxes tensed muscles, neutralizes negative emotions caused by prolonged stress, helps to metabolizes excess sugar and adrenaline, and unblocks the immune system and the regeneration system. Another frequent mistake made by executives is living on an ad-hoc and poorly-balanced diet, eating large meals late at night and not having enough sleep. Low self-esteem and the lack of adequate self-assessment, i.e. a narcissistic trait in one’s personality, are important psychological factors that impede the possibility of good relationship with one’s body and the ability of wise self-care.

How to work less and still remain a high flying executive?

Delegate as much as possible and consider a reorganization of the company to make it a teal organization. But this is a conversation for another time. In the meantime, I would like to recommend a couple of books: Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux and Szef, który ma czas (The Boss Who has Time) by Andrzej Jeznach.



The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia Extra 7/16”.
Magazine available here »

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About the Author

Wojciech Eichelberger – Trainer, coach, psychotherapist. Founder of the Institute of Psychoimmunology (IPSI), which promotes humanistic ideas in business. One of the leading psychologists and psychotherapists in Poland. Author of numerous books on psychology, anthropology and spirituality. Appears frequently in the media and publishes in popular magazines and dailies. Proponent of the holistic approach to management, which includes psyche, body, energy and spirituality.

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