CFO Day: Stress expert Richard Sutton makes CFOs reflect on how their stress affects others


What causes stress in South African organisations? The answer, if you're an executive, is "you".

On Tuesday 23 July, health and stress coach Richard Sutton made some of South Africa’s leading CFOs reconsider the way they look at the relationship between their working environment and stress, at annual CFO Day. 

Speaking at f Marble Restaurant in Rosebank, Richard addressed South Africa’s most influential finance leaders, presenting them with a stress chart. 

He asked CFOs to rate, on a scale from one to ten, whether:

  • they feel as if they have authority in their work environment
  • there is fairness within their professional life
  • their efforts are properly rewarded
  • they have social and mutual support at work

Lastly, they had to rate their stress levels at that moment. 

CFOs tallied up their results and were asked to put them aside. 

“Most of us have felt extremely stressed. This experience is something we are all too familiar with,” Richard said. “In fact, this experience is the health epidemic of the 21st century.” 

Why you need to address stress 
He explained that stress is the root cause of the ailments that you would consider more pressing, like cancer and neurological disorders. 

  • 75 to 90 percent of doctors visits are because of stress
  • 73 percent of mental health issues are because of stress
  • 77 percent of physical health issues are attributed to stress

“And then we have the ageing and disrepair process that is accelerated by stress,” Richard said. 

He referred to a study in which 58 people were asked to answer questions about how much stress they were experiencing ? whether it was chronic, episodic or consistent. The study was looking at logical and chronological age and its relationship to stress, by comparing the age of participants’ cells to their level of stress. 

The study found that in the people who reported minimal stress, their biological and chronological age was the same. In the people who reported episodic stress, their biological and chronological age was also the same. But in the people who reported chronic or consistent stress, their cell age was one to two decades older than their chronological age. 

South Africa is super-stressed 
“That is how damaging stress is,” Richard said. He said that half the world’s population in the last five years, states that stress is higher now than ever before in history. 

“Why? It’s not the toughest point in history, is it? Major recessions, not really. World wars, not really.” 

He then referred to Bloomberg, which reports on the most stressed-out nations in the world. In the Bloomberg report, South Africa is the second most stressed-out in the world. 

According to Liberty, Profmed and Momentum the external factors that contribute to this rating are: 

  • 11 percent of people in the room are experiencing stress-related health issues
  • 30 percent of people in the room are not coping with their stress
  • 16.2 million people in this country are unemployed
  • One in two people who claim critical illness are under 50 years old 
  • One in eight people in this room are currently suffering or managing depression
  • One in four people who have previously been diagnosed or experienced depression have the potential to experience it again in the future

“Depression induces presenteeism in organisations,” Richard explained. This is when people come to work, disconnected, disengaged, disinterested, unenthused and “practically useless”. 

This absenteeism, caused by depression, can cost a company R91,000 per person every single year. Collectively, within the South African framework, this equates to R200 billion a year. 

“This is why there is such an urgency to address stress,” Richard said. “Though it’s not a surprise that stress is having such a big and profound effect on everyone’s lives, because if I take just one of our stress hormones and expose us to that hormone over an extended period of time, I’m going to be feeling fearful, emotional, antisocial, distracted, lost of goal orientation, anxious, angry.” 

He explained that that is the effect of the stress hormone, cortisol, over a couple of days. If cortisol is in the system for an extended period of time, you can “lose your self-worth and self-esteem, feel helpless and an overwhelming sense that we have failed or aren’t good enough”. 

“Stress hormones within this country, at this point in time, are through the roof.” 

How to fix stress 
Richard said that for the last 70 years, scientists have been trying to work out where stress comes from and how to fix it. Two studies cracked this code. 

The objectives of the first study were to prove that stress affects our health and to determine where in the organisation stress appears. 

The study showed that stress does not affect everyone equally. It affects different people in different layers of the organisation. And what we assume is that the person at the top layers of the organisation, who have all the responsibilities, have to handle all the pressure and be innovative, has the most stress. But the study showed the exact opposite. It is the people in the bottom layers of the organisation that experience the most stress. 

The objectives of the second study were to find out whether this was really the case and where this stress originates from. The study identified four primary drivers of stress: 

  1. Lack of control
  2. Lack of support
  3. Effort-reward balance
  4. Injustice 

Richard explained that these studies present opportunities for leaders. They can create environments where there are control, support, effort-reward balance and justice. 

“This way, we are cutting stress off at its roots,” he said. 

It’s not them, it’s YOU
He then referred back to the results that the CFOs got from the tally at the start of his presentation and explained that the score they got, was not their own stress level, but rather their stress footprint, which defines how their stress affects other people. Essentially, Richard explained, the more stressed we are, the more we expose other people to our personal crisis. 

“And there are four levers that we can pull to change this,” Richard said. “Firstly, reward positive behaviours. Secondly, be supportive and encourage mutual support. Competitivity destroys people, whereas rewarding people will bring out the best in them. Thirdly, give people more control and authority, let them feel that they have a voice. And finally, be fair and consistent in your treatment of and behaviour towards others, and eliminate prejudice.” 

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