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Ton Buchner, CEO of Akzo Nobel, a world leader in paint products, has taken special leave to recover from temporary fatigue. In a memorable phrase, the company said he had taken “a bit too much hay on his pitchfork.” (Kelly Wilkinson/Associated Press)
Ton Buchner, CEO of Akzo Nobel, a world leader in paint products, has taken special leave to recover from temporary fatigue. In a memorable phrase, the company said he had taken “a bit too much hay on his pitchfork.” (Kelly Wilkinson/Associated Press)

Stress

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When Ton Buchner formally took over as chief executive of Akzo Nobel in April, ING, the Dutch bank, increased its recommendation on the global paint and coatings company’s stock to a buy.

Mr. Buchner, 47, a Dutch national and hands-on manager with a strong reputation earned as chief executive of Sulzer, the Swiss pumps company, was expected to move fast to fix underperforming Akzo operations.

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But on Sept. 18., the stock fell 5.5 per cent in a day, after Akzo granted Mr. Buchner special leave, to recover from what the company described as “temporary fatigue.” In a memorable phrase, the company said he had taken “a bit too much hay on his pitchfork” and added that “CEOs are also human beings.”

That chief executives – from huge conglomerates to small business – sometimes succumb to exhaustion is unsurprising.

A survey from Towers Watson, the consultancy, and WorldatWork, an association of human resources professionals, found that 32 per cent of British companies, 47 per cent of companies in the rest of Europe and the Middle East, and 61 per cent of U.S. companies said employees often experienced “excessive pressure” in their jobs. Managers in particular, according to an earlier global survey of 32,000 employees worldwide, are “generally unhappy [and] pressed for time.”

Chief executives often face additional demands, including unrelenting market expectations that they will outdo competitors, turbulent and unpredictable economic conditions, and the increased public desire that they should justify their large salaries. Experts in workplace psychology say that for many chief executives, the best way to satisfy these demands often seems to be to put in extra hours.

Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University, says: “Long hours are the real killer because as well as the constant pressure, they also take you away from natural social support systems like your family.”

The Akzo chief executive’s temporary departure looks similar to the decision last November by Lloyds Banking Group that Antonio Horta-Osorio, the Portuguese chief executive should step aside on grounds of fatigue. He had taken over at the beginning of 2011 amid intense political and public scrutiny of the banking sector. He said later that he had been “like a battery going to zero.”

At Akzo, as at Lloyds, the chief financial officer has stepped into the gap vacated by the chief executive – and nobody has used the word “stress” to describe the “medical condition” that triggered Mr. Buchner’s departure. Prof. Cooper says companies are more willing to acknowledge the pressure put on their leaders than they used to be, but still typically prefer to talk about “exhaustion,” “excessive tiredness” or “overload.”

Jeff Kindler of Pfizer resigned in 2010 as chief executive of the U.S. drug company, saying he needed to “recharge [his] batteries.” Masataka Shimizu, president of Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) absented himself in the middle of the nuclear crisis that enveloped the utility last year, blaming his absence on “overwork and lack of sleep.” He later resigned.

Like Mr. Horta-Osorio, who returned to his job two months after being signed off work, Akzo says Mr. Buchner expects to return to work in the first half of October.

Prof. Cooper says one lesson from such occurrences is that chief executives need their own support mechanism, particularly if, like Mr Horta-Osorio, who ran Santander’s British banking arm, and Mr. Buchner, they have moved from smaller, less complex jobs. He points out that it is difficult for chief executives to call the counselling helplines that many companies now establish for stressed employees.

Carole Hathaway, Towers Watson’s rewards practice leader for Europe, Middle East and Africa, says outside coaches can provide support and an independent perspective for business leaders. But she adds: “If you set targets that are not achievable and encourage people to work longer hours than they should, it probably means something is wrong with your performance management.”

Given the competitive pressures in the corporate economy, there is little sign that the sometimes superhuman demands placed on all-too-human chief executives will abate.

 

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