Executives Face Stress, Longer Hours and Additional Responsibilities due to Crisis

Executives around the world are working longer hours, taking on additional responsibilities, and experiencing higher levels of stress as they struggle to address the economic downturn, according to a McKinsey Quarterly survey. What’s more surprising, rather than feeling as turbulent as the economy, executives say they feel relatively stable and content about their companies, their work, and their performance as business leaders since the crisis began. All is not well, though.

Beyond the averages – and the executive suites – middle managers report dramatically lower levels of contentment than their more senior colleagues do, as well as less of a desire to stay with their current employers.

In this survey, a range of executives – from corporate directors and chief executive officers (CEOs) to middle managers – were asked if and in what way the crisis has led to changes in their professional roles and the ways in which they spend their time on and off the job. They also responded to questions about their levels of physical and mental stress and its sources, rated their own performance as business leaders and the performance of their superiors, and identified the capabilities and mind-sets they have found helpful for tackling the new economic conditions.

Most respondents are working more hours since the crisis began, and nearly 40% have more responsibilities without the benefit of a new title. But although stress levels have increased, most executives say they can cope. Further, most find their work more exciting and meaningful than they did before the crisis, and almost all – 95% – are at least somewhat satisfied with their own performance as business leaders. Far fewer are impressed with the work of their direct superiors. As for middle managers, compared with more senior colleagues, they are less committed to staying with their companies, less enthusiastic about their work, less satisfied with their own performance, and far less satisfied than more senior executives with how their bosses are doing.

More than 80% of executives say their organisations’ financial performance has suffered as a result of the crisis. Not surprising, just as many say their companies have already taken steps to reduce operating costs, or plan to do so in 2009, and almost half note efforts to reduce capital investments and increase productivity.

Executives are working harder in this environment – 55 hours a week on average, compared with 45 before the crisis. Two out of three are spending more time than before on directly monitoring or managing operating performance and cash flow. And just over half say they are putting extra hours into setting strategy and motivating employees; four out of ten into dealing with immediate and unforeseen problems and engaging with customers, suppliers, and other external stakeholders.
More than half of the executives who are satisfied with their own performance as business leaders were spending extra time on motivating people – compared with only 30% of those who aren’t at all satisfied.

Although monitoring financial performance is crucial in a crisis, the findings suggest that executives should place a higher priority on motivating employees than they are now. More than half of the executives who are very or somewhat satisfied with their own overall performance as business leaders say they are spending extra time on motivating people – compared with some 30% of those who aren’t at all satisfied with their own overall performance.

Major findings of the research are:

  • A minority of executives – 44% of C-level executives, 39% of senior managers, and 30% of middle managers – say they were well prepared to deal with the crisis. Notably, when respondents were asked what capabilities and mind-sets had helped them to prepare, middle managers were less likely than senior managers to indicate that any mind-set or capability had prepared them.
  • Satisfaction levels are low when executives rate their overall performance. Just 26% of C-level and senior executives and 17% of middle managers are very satisfied with their own overall performance.
  • Further, satisfaction levels drop even more dramatically when respondents rate the performance of their bosses. Twenty percent of C-level and senior executives and 30% of middle managers aren’t at all satisfied with their superiors’ performance -another indication of middle managers’ overall lack of connection to their current companies.
  • 27% of middle managers (compared with 18% of all executives) say they find their current roles less meaningful and exciting than their roles before the crisis. And just 36% of middle managers (compared with 52% of all executives) report that they are very or extremely likely to choose to be with their current employers two years from now, given their current excitement about their roles and their companies as well as their current stress levels.
  • Most executives are coping fairly well with the potentially stressful effects of the crisis. Almost 20% say their levels of physical and mental stress have not changed at all, and more than 50% say stress levels have increased but are manageable in the long term. However, one in five executives say they are worried going forward about coping with the increased stress levels.
  • A little more than 20% of all executives (but 27% of middle managers) perceive that it has become riskier to their careers to speak up on difficult decisions when their points of view differ from the views of more senior managers.


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