Stress is good for you. You can’t do anything without stress. Stress is what
makes suspension bridges possible. Without stress you couldn’t build
skyscrapers. Stress keeps you alert, sharpens your mind. A brain that isn’t
stressed isn’t working anywhere near its full capacity. You can’t push, you
can’t succeed without stress.
So that’s why I keep telling myself, stress is good for you. But then, stress
causes metal fatigue and that makes aeroplanes fall out of the sky. Stress makes
things snap, fail. Me, for instance maybe. A few years ago, a young FD in his
thirties ICI, I think dropped dead. I’ve no idea why, don’t know whether he
had some sort of congenital heart defect or what, but you can’t read about that
sort of tragedy and not wonder if the stress of the job might have had something
to do with it. Big FTSE-100 job, high-profile, ambitious guy with everything to
prove. Don’t know. Very sad. There but for the grace.
The funny thing is, we think we’re a good employer. We are a good employer.
We read the CBI/AXA survey. Got a picture on the cover of happy employees
jumping up and down with delight. Well, maybe we’re not that good an employer.
They look like they could do with a little less jumping for joy and a little
more stress. Here, they can have some of mine.
But we read the survey, and others like it. More than two-thirds of employers
have a policy to promote ‘well-being’. Including us. It reduces absence rates
which average around 6.7 days per employee per year. That’s 172 million days for
the country as a whole 3.3% of working time.
Twenty billion quid! It’s good to take a notch out of that sort of cost and
we’re ‘Investors in People’ so we wanted to make sure we did our bit. People and
profit. Staff happy, shareholders happy.
So we spent a chunk of money on staff morale surveys and workshops and
workload analysis and introducing flexible working practices and family-friendly
work-life balance crap. Got some ideas from The Work Foundation and the Health
and Safety Executive, they’ve got a bunch of ‘Management Standards’ on
work-related stress and we came up with a few things of our own.
Staff turnover’s gone down a bit so maybe it’s working. Or maybe it’s the
But this isn’t about them. This is about me. That kind of programme is fine
for someone who’s stressed because their boss makes them work through lunch or
cries because someone didn’t say ‘Well done’ often enough. Or bullies them,
which is a definite no-no, but we’re not that sort of company. I just don’t
think I’m in that stress bracket.
Had a look at the NHS Direct website. The symptoms of stress make for
Constant tiredness, check; lack of appetite, check Ha! I have a balanced meal
every day: Mars bar in one hand, can of Red Bull in the other; nail biting, no,
I don’t do that; sleeping problems, oh yeah; constipation or diarrhoea –
constipation or diarrhoea? Make your mind up but let’s not go there; tendency
to sweat, I hope not; do I? Restlessness, yeah: feels like I can’t settle on
something, get it sorted then go onto the next thing and get that bastard seen
to. Always jumping around, attention always being diverted by some new crisis
that’s blown up, some other idiot wanting a piece of me, then my attention is
blown apart when I go back to…
Where was I? Blood pressure. It says that adrenaline and something called
noradrenaline (never heard of that) are ‘fight or flight’ chemicals. They make
you chuck spears at whatever grizzly bear is about to rip your head off, or give
you the sense to run like hell. Bit hard to run when you’re stuck in an office
and even if you could run the BlackBerry follows you wherever you go. So your
blood pressure goes up. No idea what mine is. Haven’t got around to sorting out
a date for my BUPA check-up. Keep putting it off having to put it off. Just
can’t get the time in the diary or, if I do, have to cancel because of something
else. Our ‘key man’ insurance policy guys would go apeshit if they knew.
Gotta get out of here. I should phone my headhunter. She’s good, very good.
Got me this job. It was a good job then, no problem, then it went pear-shaped.
New chief executive arrived not long after me. Old Bernard suddenly retired for
health reasons and JD, the new guy, slapped me on the back and said I was for
sure his No 1 right-hand man and besides, it wouldn’t look good if he canned the
FD seeing as how I was still quite new. So not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Then the perma-tanned bastard forced through a messy acquisition. Paid too
much for it, due diligence was crap, and the financing terms were just awful. JD
said that once we delivered a few solid results the banks would fall over
themselves to refinance the deal on better terms.
Said he’d done it before and what was I so worried about, was I a business
partner FD or a goddamn measly beancounter FD? Charismatic bastard, to the
outside world, so the shareholders and the media said he was a genius and we did
the deal. Then we got inside and saw what an absolute shambles the company was
and muggins here gets to sift through the crap with his bare hands to try to
sort it all out. And then the damned credit crunch hits and the refinancing
option goes to hell in a handcart. Now the bankers are giving me grief because
they want information faster than our useless systems can churn it out.
Would love to get the hell out, but what headhunter is going to touch me
while this place is crashing and burning? Share price has crapped out, my share
options are below water, bonus is out the window, annual appraisal is going to
be a nightmare and now there’s talk of a private equity takeover deal and
apparently there’s usually a 28% chance that the FD gets the shaft when these
things happen but in this case more like 98%.
Two of my key guys are just driving me absolutely nuts right now. I think
stress is contagious. Mike, my head of treasury, for instance. Incredible.
Fat-arsed bastard and lazy with it. Smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish.
If you can’t find Mike, he’s either going for a fag break, coming back from a
fag break or having a fag break. If it’s lunchtime or 5.45pm he’s in the pub.
Walking health hazard, but is he stressed? Hell, no. If I looked like that and
smoked like that and drank like that I’d be dead. I’m the one who’s stressed out
and all he can do is bring me problems, bring me questions. Can’t put five quid
in a petty cash tin without running the details past me to see what I think.
Tried to tell him that I don’t need to know every single detail and wouldn’t it
be nice if he could just make a few decisions on his own, for once. All he said
was “Cash is king and we are but his humble subjects.” I struggled to find some
witty retort that didn’t involve punching him, then he added, “Especially now.”
He’s right, of course. The state we’re in we’ve really got to watch the cash.
And the bank covenants. I’ve got to watch him more carefully. I’m practically
doing his job for him. I should sack him. Or coach him, or something to get him
to take more responsibility. I’ve already told him it’s time he bought into what
we’re trying to do around here and he put his hands up in mock horror and said:
“Don’t stress me, boss, or I’ll sue. Human rights.” I’m not 100% sure he was
kidding. I’ll try again to have a talk with him, maybe next month. He didn’t
used to be like this. Maybe I’ll tell him he needs to go for a medical. That’ll
give him something to stress about.
Freaks me out
Dan, my financial controller, is completely different, but freaking me out just
as much as Mike. Dan never brings me problems. Or questions. Or answers. Got to
ask him for every scrap of information. Monosyllabic, uncommunicative idiot. He
holds a team meeting every week at the same time I see JD for a couple of hours.
Told him I wanted the team meeting rescheduled so it didn’t clash and so I could
talk to the team. He refused. He refused! Said it would be counter-productive
because I scare the crap out of the team! Scare them? I hired them! He called me
a control freak. I shouted at him that I was the goddamn finance director and it
was my goddamn job to be the goddamn control freak and while we’re at it, he’s
the control freak. Dan’s in at 7.30am every morning after going running. Not
jogging, running. Poncy iPod strapped to his bicep – the whole thing. All I
know is, he seems remarkably calm and well-adjusted for the group financial
controller of a company that’s going down the shitter. Wish I could figure out
what he’s up to.
I can’t figure anything out. Too much clutter, too much detail, too many
distractions, not enough real information, no ideas, communication is zip, can’t
trust half the people here, can’t rely on the other half, fire-fighting all the
time, never flying the helicopter and seeing what’s coming over the horizon,
always surprised by crap that should have been completely 100% predictable.
Everyone looks at me when that happens, and say nothing. I think they blame me.
Christ, if they just did their jobs properly without me having to double-check
or second-guess what they’re doing…
Read the other day about the FD of Tullow Oil who resigned so he could spend
more time with his family. Amazingly, there wasn’t a euphemism in sight. He
meant it. He’s about 39 and was splitting his time between wife and weans in
Ireland and the HQ in London and he didn’t want that, wanted to stay in Dublin.
Brave decision. Career-limiting, you’d think. But maybe not. Shows he’s a
sorted-out kind of guy who won’t do just anything, but insists on dealing on his
own terms. Good on him.
Losing my balance
As for me, I try to build a little work-life balance into things. The working
days are long, obviously, and I always used to keep the weekends clear, apart
from Sunday afternoons, maybe. Weekends are more messed up than that now, though
it’s maybe not such a big deal. The kids come home from university (not as often
as they used to), bring their dirty laundry for Anne (who’s always pleased to
see them, regardless) and their requests for more money to me. I’m always
pleased to see them, too, but the mention of the word ‘money’ sometimes makes me
flip and they take it the wrong way and then there’s a fight and they storm out,
Anne shouts at me and I retreat to my study and can’t concentrate on any of
the bloody work that I’ve got to do. They just don’t know. They don’t realise.
It’s too easy for kids these days.
Meanwhile, I’m flipping out without warning. Got totally stuck in traffic on
the M4 two weeks ago, on my way to a meeting with the bankers. Started shrieking
in frustration and pounding the steering wheel like a demon. Then I threw the
satnav out of the window. That was bloody clever.
I’ve got to get this sorted. Got to speak to someone. Headhunter’s a bad
idea. Word will spread. I’ll become untouchable. Got to sort this mess out
before I can jump. Or wait till I’m pushed. Can’t talk to JD he’s the cause of
most of this. Chairman would just have me eased out “to pursue other career
options”. One of those industrial psychologists, maybe, but got to separate the
professional stress management experts from the card-carrying tree-hugging
shrinks. Think I saw something about this on NHS Direct. GP might help. Get
something to help me think straight, stay calm, sleep better, see my way through
all this crap. Got to sort this out. Anne.
Yeah, definitely. Got to do it. Got to get help. Got to do it now. Otherwise
bang, that’s it, game over. Job, career, everything. Got to do it now.
Just as soon as I get these cash flow projections reworked then definitely
I’ll have more time, maybe, to… to…
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