Managing stress

Two years ago, Terry Tarillion felt the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The 52-year-old executive was in the process of moving his company, Heritage Printing & Graphics Center, to a new facility in Brookfield, and there was considerable pressure and uncertainty tied to the move. At the time, Tarillion was engaged in a never-ending struggle with city officials over building code restrictions. The company also took on a large amount of debt for both the building and new printing equipment as part of a strategic shift Tarillion was implementing.
Then, in the middle of the move, two of his three key employees unexpectedly left the company. One was a print shop manager who came down with a rare bone disorder. “About the time we really needed him, he was gone,” Tarillion recalls. The other, a trusted sales and marketing manager who had been with the company for 16 years, up and left for Prairie du Chien to start her own business with her husband.
With uncertainty surrounding the company’s future, Tarillion started to show the signs of stress. He visited a doctor for stomach problems. Then, with the pressure of work weighing on him, he started neglecting his marriage and having trouble at home.
“There was a lot of uncertainty,” Tarillion recalls. “It was like, ‘What’s going to happen next?’ It was a period of time when chaos reined. There was this constant background of doubt and fear creeping in. We had long-term people showing physical and mental strain. It is not a time I would like to go through again.”
The more he leaned on himself for solutions, it seemed the worse things got, Tarillion recalls. Ultimately, he says it was his Christian faith that pulled him through.
“Terry realized the job is not the end-all,” observes Poul Sanderson, a Milwaukee psychotherapist who specializes in executive stress counseling. “He empowers his employees, seeks outside counsel, and he’s well-rounded. That’s why I think he’s successful.”
Many are not as fortunate, succumbing to stress in the form of heart disease, migraine headaches and all manner of debilitating illnesses. The American Institute of Stress reports that anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are stress-related. A report issued in 1992 by the United Nations called job stress the United States’ largest export. Stress-related ailments cost US corporations as much as $300 billion a year, according to a study by Cornell University.
According to Jo Hawkins Donovan, a Milwaukee corporate consultant and psychologist, when the pressure of living with ordinary and extraordinary events exceeds our capacity to cope, we start to exhibit the symptoms of stress. Our physical and mental health starts to deteriorate.
Tend your garden
Hawkins Donovan once treated an executive in his mid-40s who came to her completely burned out. The man had risen through the ranks as a high-energy over-achiever to become head of a 500-employee Milwaukee company.
Over time, the executive ignored the early warning signs such as irritability, lack of enthusiasm for the job and not being able to sleep. The man didn’t say anything about his stress to anyone, and the symptoms grew worse to the point where he became almost non-functional, Hawkins Donovan recalls.
By the time he walked into her office, the man exhibited the classic symptoms of burnout. His energy level was so low he could hardly respond. He was in despair and wholly incapable of making decisions.
In the midst of his despair, the executive would drive down to his old South Side neighborhood and sit there, longing for the days when he felt he was still in control of his life, Hawkins Donovan says. The man felt trapped that he had to be with people all day long, both at work and when he got home and stepped into the role of father. This conflicted with his introverted nature.
“People in this situation feel like they are losing it,” Hawkins Donovan says. “But there are so many options for managing stress. The big issue is to stop and decide you are going to do something about it.”
What Hawkins Donovan did was get the executive to take some time away from work, and helped him re-examine his priorities. She had him do simple things to get time alone, such as plant a garden. With her assistance, the man learned to be more discriminating about where he applied his abilities.
“He was giving a crisis-type energy to everything he did at work,” Hawkins Donovan says. “He had a belief system that said he couldn’t say no. He was just madly trying to please everyone else without taking stock of what his own needs were.”
Burnout is reversible, Hawkins Donovan says. The man is back leading the company and doing fine since he made the necessary adjustments.
Great expectations
Mike Tetkoski sees a lot of middle management health-care workers in his job as clinical psychologist at St. Michael Hospital in Milwaukee, and many are there for the same thing:
They’re stressed out.
A combination of too much work, not enough people to do the work, and unreasonably high expectations in today’s corporate environment are leading people to work themselves not only into poor health, but into a mental state in which they feel they have little control.
“Fewer people are doing more work,” Tetkoski says. “But the expectation is that it will be done at the same level and within the same timeframe. So they suffer in silence and work longer hours, hoping that it will all work out in the end.”
This is what Tetkoski calls quantitative stress, the kind that results when there aren’t enough bodies to go around. For people who have been promoted, what might have seemed like a reward now seems like a sentence. They see others going home to their lives while they stay and work into the night. People in this position can start to feel isolated and resentful toward the organization, Tetkoski says.
“At the same time, they think to themselves: ‘I have to justify the company’s faith in me,'” Tetkoski says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that one. So they decide to work longer, harder hours, because retreating to their old job is not an option.”
According to a study of more than 5,000 Swedish and American men, junior executives are more likely to sustain heart attacks than leaders of companies, Sanderson says. Also, the lower tenth of workers are more likely to develop heart disease than men in the top five percent of companies, suggesting that stress is not confined solely to management ranks, Sanderson says.
The other type of stress Tetkoski sees in his practice is qualitative stress. That results when people who are good at their line-level jobs are promoted into management ranks with little or no training. And they are reluctant to ask for help or training for fear they will be perceived as not being up to the task.
“Just because someone is a good radiologist or staff nurse does not make them a good manager,” Tetkoski says. “This is an entirely different mindset. And the organization is not crazy about providing you with the opportunity or the time to acquire those skills to get you over the hump. And if they do get permission to take a class, their workload remains the same. These people are typically expected to do more work.”
What if the organization is asking you to do budget projections, and you have never done that before? Tetkoski asks. If you are lucky, you may get an experienced manager to walk you through the project. But ultimately, the job you end up doing is slipshod and you are left with the feeling that you are an impostor in this new position, and that you will be fired when your superiors find out, he says.
Some of the business people Tetkoski sees in his practice are business owners of companies with 20 or fewer employees. They started the business because they were particularly good at the necessary skill to get it off the ground, but now they are struggling with the managerial aspect because the company is in its second stage of growth.
“It is at this point that these guys come to me after they’ve hired five new people, and they are further and further removed from what they used to do,” Tetkoski says.
For some owners or managers, it is a matter of loosening up the reins and delegating authority, he says.
“I ask these people to look at their own values,” he says. “I ask them where they see themselves in the workplace, and what niche they can fill. A lot of these people just think they’re along for the ride. So I stop and make them think by showing them that they have control over their own destiny. Some decide that they don’t want to do this anymore. They don’t want to be a manager, or they decide to delegate more.”
Tetkoski knows of several highly respected physicians who are getting out of the practice of medicine because they are sick and tired of the increasing administrative burden.
“My assumption is, they have become so far removed from doing what they want to do – which is practice medicine – that they feel like they can’t turn back the clock,” Tetkoski says. “That’s the sad part. It’s not that people don’t want to do the job. There are obstacles that get in the way, and everyone loses.”
Reclaiming their lives
For the small entrepreneur, stress can be as much of a factor as it is for the lead executives of a large company.
Until early 1997, Rick and Cindy Owings felt like they were living to work in their seven-employee firm, Owings Computer Graphics. There was constant pressure to maintain a sufficient backlog of work in order to keep the employees busy, Rick Owings recalls.
“There were different pressures such as dealing with people’s individual lifestyles, meeting payroll and having to compromise our standards, at times, in order to maintain a necessary volume of work,” says the 39-year-old Owings. “This created a tremendous amount of pressure. We had to spend more time – a lot more time – than we really wanted.
“We really didn’t have a life other than work for about 10 years,” Owings continues. “For the first six years, we worked every Saturday and half of Sunday. We didn’t take vacations. We were putting in 65- to 70-hour weeks. Our 7-year-old daughter was raised in this office. Our social life was virtually non-existent.”
Finally, Owings and his wife began to see the light when several employees left the firm. They noticed a corresponding decrease in pressure. They started taking 10-day vacations to the Caribbean.
“Our blood pressure must drop 30 points when we do that,” Owings says. “I feel like it adds 10 years to our lives.”
About 16 months ago, the last employee left on her own. Now, it’s just Owings, his wife, and a part-time bookkeeper. Their quality of life is better, and they feel as if they are in control.
“I think some people are afraid to admit that it is impossible to do it all – to function at a high level as an executive, to manage the household, be excellent parents, and still have time for friends and family,” Owings says. “I think some people want to give the impression that things are problem-free, that everything is running smoothly.
“They are afraid that if clients, friends or relatives see the bumps in the road, that somehow they may lose credibility with these people,” Owings says.
“I just found that admitting the fact was a big step in the right direction for us. Everyone sets high goals and standards, but there is a price to pay for it. And the price is personal relationships and free time. You just have to draw the line somewhere. You just have to come to the realization that it probably can’t all be done.”
May 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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