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Overcoming your Emotional Burdens to Increase your Professional Growth

Posted By Ceci On 11 February, 2015 @ 7:07 am In Edición 51,Human Resources | No Comments

By: Dr. Gloria Robles
Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México

In my contact with Mexican executives I have found that most have a great desire to continue their professional development. Therefore, they enroll in a master’s degree program or take professional courses, thinking that by improving their academic preparation, their chances of achieving more prominent positions will be ensured.

Yes, knowledge and skills help, but they do not guarantee the development of executives, who might be carrying emotional burdens that hamper their growth and rob them of their inner peace.

This article is intended to share with the reader the main emotional burdens that I have identified in executives based on my professional experience, both as a professor of the MBA at ITAM and as a therapist, in order that they become aware of which ones they may have and find ways to overcome them. In other words, so they can get rid of the excess baggage that weighs them down and thus feel freer to continue to grow.

The article includes real examples of executives, but to safeguard confidentiality, names have been changed as well as any information that might identify them. The word “executive” is used interchangeably to refer to men or women, unless otherwise indicated.

Emotional Burdens of Executives


  • Poor stress management
  • Panic attacks
  • Burnout syndrome
  • Imbalance between work and family
  • Problems with authority figures

Poor Stress Management

In my opinion, stress is the emotional burden that most frequently limits executive development. Let’s consider Juan’s case.

He is the director of a finance department of a large Mexican corporation. He is 40 years old and married. Less than a month ago he suffered a heart attack and the company granted him a one-month leave to recover. Juan acknowledges that the cause of the heart attack was the level of stress at work, since he must make risky decisions. However, he likes what he does and wants to keep his job, so he decides to seek psychological counseling to learn how to manage stress.

What is stress? To understand it better, let’s define it:

Stress is a dynamic condition in which an individual is confronted with an opportunity, constraint or demand related to what s/he desires and the result of which is considered both uncertain and important. [Schuler, 1980. p.189].

Also, stress can be defined as:

A general adaptation syndrome, which occurs in human beings in response to difficult or dangerous situations, whether they are triggered by internal or external stimuli. [Robles, 1995, p. 47].

The main factors that cause stress are: work overload and time pressures; assignment of difficult-to-achieve goals on the part of the company; working excessive hours of more than 10 hours a day; exaggerated growth expectations of the executive within an unrealistic time frame; difficult economic environment in which companies put pressure on executives, as if the achievement of results depended solely on them, etc. It seems that executives and directors have plenty of reasons to feel stressed.

Stress is not always harmful; average levels can serve as a stimulus for an individual. When people do not have goals and challenges, they fall into a comfort zone in which they lack incentives. But when pressures are excessive overcome chronic, a person becomes ill or fatigued. The important thing is to learn to manage stress so that it is kept at optimal levels. It seems that Juan ignored the signals that his body sent him to indicate that the pressure he was experiencing was exaggerated. These signals can be a headache, stiff neck and shoulders, tightening of the jaw, high blood pressure, feeling tense, anxiety, insomnia, eating or smoking compulsively, etc. If the symptoms of stress are not attended to and become chronic, psychosomatic illnesses, like ulcers, colitis, migraines, clogged arteries from high levels of cholesterol or triglycerides or, more seriously, a heart attack, can occur.

So, we either lower the stimuli that cause us stress – for example, work fewer hours – or we learn and practice techniques to relieve stress. If the person is active, it is recommended to relieve stress with exercise or by practicing a sport. If the person is rather calm, it is best to do relaxation exercises or meditate.

Another way to deal with stress is to join a support group. The difficult moments of life are easier to cope with when we have people around us who understand and accept us. For Ibarra and Hunter (2007), an executive must have three support groups: operational, personal and strategic. The operational group includes the necessary relationships with colleagues and peers to do the job efficiently. The personal group involves the ties that support personal and professional executive development (for example, a coach), and lastly, the strategic group includes contacts with people who have the power to influence professional career advancement, such as directors or managers of the organization.

There are other techniques to manage stress, like massages, breaks and vacations, hobbies, etc. The important thing is to assess the level of stress that we can tolerate without getting sick and learn to relieve tension through compensation techniques, so that stress does not accumulate or become chronic.

Panic Attacks

While stress is commonplace among executives, panic attacks are now becoming more frequent. This happens when the pressures and concerns surpass the person’s level of endurance. Let’s look at what happened to Carlos.

Carlos is a 38-year-old engineer who works in the construction and sale of low-income housing. After having a very successful career, both professionally and economically, he begins to feel an uncontrollable fear of leaving his home alone. He gets heart palpitations (tachycardia) and, during those moments, he sweats and feels like he is going to die. The idea of death causes a feeling of panic that immobilizes him. Now he feels unable to do the work that he did before with confidence and security.

Panic attacks occur during high levels of anxiety, when the executive can no longer manage and control the stress. When the individual suffers anxiety, s/he feels an inner restlessness, tightness of the chest, trouble breathing, is nervous, accelerated, and fears that something bad might happen to him…s/he has lost his/her inner peace.

Although the symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks are terrible and painful, if they are treated properly they are resolved in a few months. When the anxiety level is low or average, psychotherapy is enough. When it is so high, causing panic attacks, a mixed treatment is required, with medications prescribed by a specialist, usually a psychiatrist, and psychotherapy sessions. We must be careful with general practitioners who prescribe anxiolytics, since they are not experts in the handling of medication for the nervous system.

Burnout Syndrome

Laura is a senior executive in the marketing department at a multinational corporation. She is 35 years old, single and lives alone. She has the goal of becoming a director in the organization, so she is willing to work 12 or 14 hours a day, taking work home on weekends, traveling for work and accepting all the projects that her boss offers her. After several months working at that pace, Laura feels exhausted. Despite a weekend of rest, she is just as tired the following Monday. She begins to feel like not going to work, she retreats from her clients since she blames them for her fatigue, she stops seeing friends and spends very little time with her family. The excess of work and the lack of rest exhausted her. Although before she was full of energy and enthusiasm, now she feels tired all the time, has difficulty concentrating, doing mental work and making decisions. The time comes when she feels so depleted that she becomes inefficient and needs an obligatory rest. Laura suffers from the burnout syndrome.

When Freudenberger chooses the word “burnout” to describe what happens to certain professionals, he was thinking about what remains after a fire:

If you have ever seen a burned building, you know it is a devastating picture. What was once a vital structure, now is desolation; where there was activity, now there are only traces of energy and life […] In my psychoanalytic practice, I’ve noticed that people, like buildings, sometimes get burned. [Freudenberger, 1980, p. XVI]

In Mexico, according to research conducted by Robles (1995), two factors are related to the burnout syndrome: 1) chronic job stress caused by overwork and time pressures, difficult contact with customers and lack of support from superiors and colleagues; and 2) chronic job dissatisfaction due to the lack of recognition and achievement, little variety in the workplace and poor professional development.

Burn out does not suddenly come, but it is the result of months of exhaustive work, with little rest and no exercise. Executives can be aware that they are in the process of becoming exhausted if they have the following symptoms: chronic fatigue, irritability, impaired cognitive functions – such as concentration, attention, problem analysis, etc. – negative attitudes toward work and the customers.

If Laura had been aware that she was becoming exhausted, she could have reversed the process in time, since when it is in its initial phase, it can be overcome with rest, good nutrition and vacations, that is, through a process of revitalization.

To avoid to get burned out, Schwartz and McCarthy (2007) propose the strategy of managing energy rather than time, which is a limited, non-renewable resource. For executives to be able to conserve their energy, they make the following suggestions: get enough sleep by going to bed earlier; reduce stress through cardiovascular exercise; eat a light snack every three hours; take short breaks away from the desk every 90 to 120 minutes. To conserve mental energy, they suggest reducing interruptions when you are doing tasks that require a lot of concentration, using an answering machine and setting up a schedule for reviewing and answering emails. As we see, the solution is to balance work and rest.

When the executive is burned out, the solution is total rest, with a full withdrawal from work and concerns, a healthy diet, and taking Vitamin B complex, all supervised by a physician.

In my experience as a therapist of “burned out” executives, I have found that some personal characteristics make individuals more prone to exhaustion: not knowing how to say no to excessive work assigned by their boss, for fear that it might slowdown their development; having such high growth expectations that they impose exaggerated work loads on themselves; or finally, not delegating, but doing all the work themselves, thinking only they can ensure its quality.

Reaching a state of exhaustion has painful consequences for executives since their performance deteriorates, they suffer from not being able to react as before, and they see the recovery period extended to at least a month.

Imbalance between Work and Family

There are three main reasons why one becomes totally absorbed by work and neglects the family. Some executives, like Laura, feel such a strong drive to advance professionally that they are willing to devote most of their time to work. Others are workaholics and feel the need to work nonstop, because they think their worth is measured by what they do rather than who they are. However, most of them are motivated by the intention of providing their family with a good standard of living (at least equal to or better than what they had) so they go too far in seeking a high salary, as in the case of Agustin, which is presented below.

Agustin is a 36-year-old executive, married with three children, who feels pressured to achieve sales quotas set by the marketing director, because like any salesperson, his salary is reduced by half, if he does not receive the incentives for goals achieved. He needed all the income, salary plus commissions, to cover family expenses. Agustin had to visit customers in different cities, which involved making one or two trips a week. His wife was upset because she was left in charge of the kids and the house and because he was never with her. Meanwhile, Agustin was very tired and on the brink of exhaustion.

Although Agustin may seem justified in neglecting his family, in reality his life was unbalanced to such a degree that, trying to give them the best, paradoxically he began to harm his children, his wife and his health.

The imbalance between family life and work is very common among Mexican executives, both men and women. When my students in the MBA program make their life and career plan, most, if not all, recognize that they neglect their family because of work. In seeking solutions to this situation that concerns them, the following have been proposed: spend quality time with family rather than quantity; establish fixed times to spend with them, with hours and days to spend with the children, and have dinner with their spouse or partner at least once a month; on weekends engage in family activities, such as practicing a sport together, spending a day in the country or taking short trips, and going on family vacations at least once a year.

In addition, Groysberg and Abrahams (2014) propose to deliberately choose what opportunities worth accepting and which are not, whether it is in family life or at work, instead of only reacting to emergencies. When interviewing executives of both genders, these authors concluded that the tension between work and family is a more serious problem for women, so it is essential that they count on the collaboration of their partner, as well as on support networks both in the family and the workplace.

One might think that single women do not have these problems of balance, but some, wanting to reach managerial positions, concentrate so much on their career that they neglect their personal life. They do not give themselves the opportunity to cultivate a relationship with a partner that will enable them to start a family, when that is also important to them. It is common for successful female executives, between 33 and 35 years old, to come to psychotherapy feeling desperate because they cannot find a partner and want to have a family.

Most people tend to ignore the imbalance between family and work, until a crisis occurs, such as a heart attack, a teenage son or daughter who is addicted to drugs or the threat of divorce. They do not realize that spending time with their family would give them a support network to relieve stress and avoid exhaustion.

Problems with Authority Figures

Another burden that limits an executive’s performance is the inability to establish a harmonious relationship, of respect and cooperation, with his/her immediate superiors. This is due to two causes: rebellion or submission. Rebellious executives feel that their bosses abuse their authority, and so they resist it. Submissive ones allow their bosses to abuse them, not daring to confront the abuse or injustice. Let’s take the example of Santiago, who belongs to the first group.

Santiago is a 32-year-old executive, single, who works in one of the largest banks in Mexico. He joined the institution upon completing his career in business. He has worked for several years for the same boss, who considers him to be a good employee, since he is well prepared and is committed to his work with the bank, and is professional. Due to his performance, Santiago receives an offer for another position at the same bank in another city of the country. He talks with his boss about it and his boss tells him he thinks he is well off where he is and should stay. Santiago gets angry because he thinks his boss is blocking him and limiting his development, so he decides to go above him and talk with the area director to get an authorization for his transfer. Two years after taking the new job in the other city, he realizes that his boss was right, that there were better development opportunities in Mexico City, in addition to the emotional cost of living far away from his family and friends. He asks for his reinstatement in the department of his former boss with whom he was angry, and, surprisingly, he accepts him without resentment or anger.

Analyzing his behavior in therapy, Santiago realizes that this act of rebellion led him to make the wrong decision. He also recognizes that it is not the first time that he has done this, because he has had problems with other authority figures, starting with his father, teachers and other superiors.

When executives have had difficulty with several bosses, it is likely that they are the cause of the problem. Faced with their rebellion against accepting authority, they can do two things: start their own business so that they do not have anyone over them or try to understand the origins of their rebellion and provide a solution. If the origins date back to their childhood, it would be best for them to go into psychotherapy.

On the other hand, submissive employees accept responsibilities beyond their possibilities. The boss leaves work at the normal hour, but expects his/her subordinate to stay in the office until 10 or 11 at night, and if s/he has not finished the work, that s/he take it home on the weekend, “because it must be presented at the meeting on Monday.”

It would be advisable for submissive subordinates to ask why they allow their boss to abuse them, they courageously confront him/her, they learn to set limits, demand respect or say no.

General Solutions and Recommendations

The following are some general recommendations to overcome emotional burdens, to get rid of excess baggage and lessen the weight to continue to grow in harmony and balance:

  • To overcome burdens and create new habits, the following steps are recommended:
    • Become aware of your emotional burdens. Improve your self-awareness with tests, assessments, self-analysis, feedback, etc.
    • Develop a plan of action to overcome the burdens.
    • Practice the actions that you have planned until they have replaced old habits.

  • Learn to manage stress.
  • Set up and cultivate support networks, both professionally and personally.
  • Seek support from a coach or mentor.
  • For single female executives who want to have a family, allow time to cultivate relationships and look for possible future partners.
  • Develop your emotional intelligence to learn how to handle negative emotions, such as fear and stress, and strengthen yourself in order to face the demands that institutions exert over executives.
  • Seek a healthy, balanced life, taking care of your body, mind, emotions, social life and spiritual dimension.
  • Develop a career and life plan in order to define personal and professional goals. Decide on the price you are willing to pay to achieve them, without being influenced by work or social pressures.
  • Finally, if the burdens originate in old, emotional wounds heal them in psychotherapy.

Bibliography

  • Berglas S. (2006). How to Keep A Players Productive. Harvard Business Review. September.
    Freudenberger H.J. (1980). Burn Out .How to Beat the High Cost of Success. Nueva York: Bantam Books.
  • Groysberg B. and Abrahams R. (2014). Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life. Harvard Business Review. March.
  • Ibarra H. and Hunter M. (2007). How Leaders Create and Use Networks. Harvard Business Review. January.
  • Maslach C. (1982). Burn Out: The Cost of Caring. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.
  • Robles G. (1995). Identificación de Factores Asociados al Síndrome de Agotamiento en Maestros de Universidades Privadas Mexicanas.Tesis doctoral. Universidad Iberoamericana. México.
  • Schuler S. (1980). Definition and Conceptualization of Stress in Organizations. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance. April.
  • Schwartz T. and McCarthy C. (2007). Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time. Harvard Business Review. October.


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