Know the signs of stress and avoid a breakdown

Pressure of work can push you to the limit, but there are ways of coping, as Charles Orton-Jones reports

“I burst out crying at Victoria Station on the way to a meeting. I was so tired in all aspects and couldn’t focus on anything. I had a snotty face and spent three hours crying non-stop, sitting in Wetherspoon’s, on the phone to my mother as she coaxed me on to a train to her home in the Midlands where I slept for six weeks.”

Kerry Bannigan is a tough cookie. Her event management firm Nolcha boasts clients such as the New York Stock Exchange and Proctor & Gamble. She is co-chairwoman of the G8 Young Summit Executive Council, and appears regularly on NBC television and in The Wall Street Journal. And here she was at her mum’s in Corby, recovering from a spectacular emotional collapse.

“I hit burnout big time. I was able to run on fumes, adrenalin and the deals, but three years ago I burnt out physically, mentally and emotionally. It was due to the combination of travel, long hours, competing for deals, the financial stress of growth, hiring, finding the right people to do the correct job and the fast pace of the industry.”

Poor Kerry probably wasn’t the only one in Victoria Station that day having a wobble. Corporate meltdowns are depressingly common. There are many moving and frankly terrifying stories of ultra-successful entrepreneurs going kaput.

For some it’s a prolonged period of living on the brink. D.S. Bal found the start-up period for the Sikh Channel on TV a painful time. “I carried on close to breaking point, often sleeping three to four hours a night over a two- year period,” he says. Stopping wasn’t something he would consider. His punishing work-rate ended only when his children revolted against his absences. Today the Sikh Channel is broadcast in 17 countries and Mr Bal has replaced himself with a new chief executive to enjoy a lower stress life.

Was it worth it? Mr Bal says: “Absolutely. Without the hard grind and single-minded relentless effort, I doubt if we would have survived and succeeded at an international level.”

This is a vital point. In corporate life, there may be no alternative to sanity-testing working weeks. The trick is to learn the limits of human endurance. So what are they?

The British Venture Capital Association (BVCA) has a vested interest in knowing. Its members work with workaholic entrepreneurs and need to know when they are going to malfunction. “The Olympic rower Katherine Grainger came to speak to us,” says BVCA chairman Simon Clark. “She was asked how painful it was to row at her level. She said it entirely depends on whether you are coming first or second. If you are second the pain can be unendurable. First, not painful at all. Burnout is similar. You can eat the wrong things, drink too much coffee, fail to sleep enough, but if you are winning, then you’ll just feel happy.”

The keys to supreme performance are sleep, good nutrition and a cognitive repertoire to help you cope with turbulent working conditions

The danger is when sales aren’t happening. “You become stubborn. You think if you work harder everything will come right, so you sleep even less and force those around you to work as hard as you,” says Mr Clark. “You stop listening. Part of you knows you are doing the wrong thing, but you are too scared you’ve wasted six months and millions of pounds of investors’ money.” The stress spiral all too often ends in a breakdown.

Venture capitalists and non-executives ought to be alert to these symptoms and intervene. Some entrepreneurs don’t have these resources. So how can we spot the early warning signs?

One technique is to keep a log book. This method is advocated by Magdalena Bak-Maier, an executive coach with a PhD in developmental neuroscience from the California Institute of Technology. She works with entrepreneurs and executives who want to push themselves to the maximum without crossing the line into burnout.

“Because our mental, emotional, physical energy levels are something we normally don’t pay attention to consciously, gradual drifts are difficult to register,” she says. “I have invented an exercise where clients keep a regular log, recording their state, every day. This ensures that their mind pays attention to their overall condition.”

The keys to supreme performance, she says, are sleep, good nutrition and a cognitive repertoire to help you cope with turbulent working conditions.

The sleep aspect speaks for itself. Adrenaline and cortisol, stress hormones, flood the body during the day and interfere with sleeping patterns. One night’s lack of sleep is akin to being over the legal limit for alcohol. Over time performance deteriorates further. Nutrition aids resilience. Even a good breakfast can prevent wild swings in blood sugar.

Less obvious is the cognitive stuff. Ms Bak-Maier uses an exercise she calls “Diamonds, Gold and Lead” to help executives rank their activities in terms of things which aid development and growth, things which offer long-term results, things of immediate worth, and activities which drain resources, time and emotional energy. “Such deliberate consideration takes a few minutes, but proves to be very powerful in creating new awareness,” she says.

The biggest misunderstanding? Probably that stress is about hours worked. Rick Hughes, lead adviser at the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, says: “I have seen people work 14 hours a day, so the only other thing in their life was sleeping. What works for some is unsustainable for others.”

Even the symptoms are varying. “For some it is a physical response. Sweating more or palpitations,” says Mr Hughes. “There can a physical side, such as being more susceptible to colds and illnesses.” Emotional volatility is another manifestation.

The solution, he says, is to seek help early. “Talk to HR. Many employers offer access to counselling. Employers have a statutory duty to act. There have been big compensation pay-outs from failure to respond to that duty of care.”

For Kerry Bannigan, her post-meltdown work life is one with the same ambition as before, but with a few vital add-ons: “I learnt that I needed to slow down, to breathe and treat my health as a priority, like I would a top client. Every week I still check in with myself, to make sure I am on track and have no feelings or signs of before.”