How to Pass the Stress Test

How to Pass the Stress Test

An IT executive tells the story of his own stress-related breakdown and recovery

An IT executive tells the story of his own stress-related breakdown and recovery, and reveals what you can do to avoid the abyss.

There is a great scene in the 1990 movie Days of Thunder. Tom Cruise is a race car driver screaming around a racetrack in a noisy blur of smoke and colour. Coming into a straightaway, he puts his foot right to the floor. The car roars, the tachometer leaps up into the red, and the engine promptly explodes. The car loses all speed and limps to the side of the track, useless. Cruise had pushed it too far, and as a consequence, it died.

Unfortunately, many executives in the business world have also got their foot to the floor, unaware that burnout lies just around the corner. The consequences can be disastrous and costly, not only for the individual but also for the company.

I should know. For more than 25 years, I believed I could accomplish just about anything professionally. And I often did. Following medical school, I enjoyed 15 years of practice before accepting a senior leadership role in PeaceHealth, a nonprofit health-care organisation in the Pacific Northwest of the US. My job quickly grew until I had responsibility for corporatewide clinical quality and all information technology initiatives. In 1994, PeaceHealth launched an aggressive campaign to implement an advanced IT infrastructure supporting both operations and clinical care. The centrepiece of the effort was our Community Health Record project, a network of communitywide medical records designed to support patient care in each of the communities we serve.

Little did I know how difficult this role would prove to be. Resistance was monumental and seemed to come from everywhere in the organisation - from sceptical board members and executives to hostile physicians. My workday typically began by 6am, when I would send e-mails and return voice messages from home. Arriving at the office before 7:30am, my days were characterised by a blur of conference calls, tense meetings and voluminous e-mail exchanges. Around 7pm, I would stagger out of the office to catch a quick meal with my wife, before heading to my home office where I would continue working until 10 or 11pm. My four sons grew accustomed to not seeing their dad even on the weekends.

Despite the resistance, with the staunch support of my CEO, we literally moved mountains. In roughly four years, PeaceHealth went from virtually no automation to a highly advanced infrastructure including a full-blown electronic medical records system supporting care in all of our hospitals and clinics with nearly everything online.

However, managing the project was the most stressful job I had ever undertaken. In the summer of 2000, my engine reached its breaking point.

Each night I would lay in bed and replay my day at work, sleeping only a few hours. At the office, I uncharacteristically began snapping at people. My colleagues began wondering what happened to the affable, mild-mannered, resilient "old John". Finally, one October morning, I realised that I could not go on. I literally had no reserve, finding it difficult to even get out of bed, much less manage my professional responsibilities. Admitting this to myself was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but it was also one of the most important.

My boss, the corporate CEO, graciously granted me a three-month sabbatical. A couple of days into it, I sought professional help from the Professional Renewal Centre, an outpatient centre dedicated to helping executives deal with stress. It turned out to be exactly the right thing to do.

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