What's your problem?

MY BOSS IS HEADING FOR BURNOUT. My boss, the chief executive, has become increasingly curmudgeonly, unnecessarily directive and prone to making irrational decisions without consultation. In short, he is becoming very stressed.

by Jermemy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In the last year he has had five days' holiday, he's overweight and works gratuitously long hours. I am concerned for him personally and professionally. The organisation is growing through change and needs him to be on top of his game and not going under. How would you advise that my colleagues and I approach the subject of a better balance to his work, life and health?

I much admire your concern for your chief executive. Too many people, when having to cope with such irascible and inconsistent leadership, think only of themselves.

From what you say, there's a serious chance that your boss is heading for some kind of crack-up. He seems to have got himself onto one of those terrifying escalators, where a combination of conscientiousness and insecurity drives people to work longer and longer hours and delegate less and less.

And, of course, the higher the levels of stress they experience, the harder it becomes for them to do what they need to do: which is stop, take some deep breaths and a proper holiday, trust others around them to keep the ship afloat - and regain some sense of objectivity and proportion.

So I feel sure you're right: without some firm and friendly help, he's going to find it impossible to step off that accelerating escalator by himself. If your company has a medical adviser, your first step should be an off-the-record word with him or her: it's just possible that your CEO has already looked for help in that direction. You're not asking anyone to betray a professional confidence; you're just registering your concern and looking for a helpful steer.

As you also clearly realise, any subsequent approach to your CEO will have to be meticulously thought through and immensely sensitive. Much will depend on your identifying the best initial go-between. I can't begin to guess who this might be, but you should look for someone whose motives he can't reasonably question. People suffering from serious work-related stress often begin to see conspiracies everywhere, so it's essential that the first conversation be initiated by someone he won't mistrust. So you may need to rule out his chairman - in whom he'd probably see only rebuke and threat; and immediate subordinates, such as yourself - in whom he could all too easily see personal ambition.

Does anyone know his family: his wife or a grown-up son or daughter?

Does he have a respected predecessor, maybe now retired? Or maybe his PA, past or present? Whoever it is, take the person you identify into your confidence, seek their advice, enlist their help and work from there.

However delicately you proceed, be prepared for an initially hostile and ungrateful response. If so, exercise heroic patience and compassion.

It may take many hours and many conversations before he can bring himself to admit that he needs help.

And if he really has reached breaking point, you'll be glad you had that preliminary word with the company doctor.

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