“People didn’t realise how enormously hard he worked,” the fund manager said. “He got up at 4.30 am and wasn’t back home until 9.30 pm.”The Stakhanovite in question was the retail analyst Richard Ratner from the brokerage firm Seymour Pierce, who died a couple of weeks ago after suffering a heart attack at work. He was 58.
“Ratty”, as he was affectionately known, was a highly regarded commentator on the retail sector, trusted by investors, respected by business leaders and quoted almost daily by journalists. It will be a strange Christmas this year on the UK high street, with no Ratner to explain what is really going on.
I am not a cardiologist. It would be presumptuous, as well as tasteless, to suggest we are looking at another example of “death by overwork” here. In any case, those who knew him spoke of Ratner’s great enthusiasm for his job. One contributor to Seymour Pierce’s website wrote: “Like most people who are really good at what they do, his passion for his work was palpable.” His daughter, too, spoke with pride at how much he had enjoyed work as well as family life.
In business, health, like lunch, is for wimps. No one is going to allow a mere head cold or mild bout of flu to stop them getting on with their work. According to a survey by the UK’s Chartered Management Institute, one in three managers is afraid to take time off when ill. If you’ve got backache, take some pills. Strong coffee can deal with any lack of sleep. For those who want them, or need them, stronger drugs will always be available.
And then there is “all that stress” endured by those at the top. Except, of course, that this is to misunderstand – in more ways then one – what really happens at different levels within businesses and organisations.
Successful people welcome the pressure that comes with greater responsibility. They have chosen to “get in there where it hurts”, as my rugby coach used to encourage me, in vain, at school. They have got to the top precisely because they have a higher pain threshold than others.
This is what the sports psychologists call “mental toughness” – the ability to keep going even when it might seem more sensible to stop.
The dirty little secret of leadership is that it is not nearly as stressful as being a subordinate. Lack of autonomy and control over your work – now, that is stressful. Boring, repetitive tasks and being excluded from the really interesting networks – this is what makes working life unpleasant and potentially damaging to health. If you don’t believe me, read Sir Michael Marmot’s book Status Syndrome, based on his three decades of research into the subject.
Health and well being are being discussed all over the developed and developing worlds at the moment. Levels of obesity and alcohol consumption are troubling public policymakers. Healthcare looks likely to be a big issue in next year’s US presidential election, while Michael Moore’s latest polemical film Sicko has driven the subject further up the agenda. This is not a conversation that management can afford to duck out of either.
“We have tried everything else in our attempts to boost productivity,” argues Clive Pinder, chief executive of Vielife, a healthcare consultancy. “Training and development, new technology, employee engagement programmes . . . what else do we think HR departments are going to come up with? To me it is blindingly obvious that healthy people cope better with the growing pressures of this increasingly competitive world.”
As the pace of business speeds up, these pressures can only rise. Working days get longer and ever more gets packed in. Admired leaders are often praised by their colleagues for “always having time” for people. But how many direct reports can you really pay attention to at any one time? If you are running a global division, teams will want to see you in the flesh. You can expect to have to live with almost permanent jet lag. Losing sleep over all this will only make things worse. Irregular sleep patterns boost adrenaline levels, causing blood pressure to rise – which is a big risk factor for heart attacks. But who would ever interrupt a key meeting to request time out for a lie-down, or even a “power nap”? It is not going to happen.
Meanwhile, our high-calorie, sedentary lifestyles seem to be leading many of us to disaster – particularly those of us who are strangers to the fluffy-towelled environment of the gym.
I am no more successful at keeping my weight down than I ever was at retrieving the rugby ball from the scrum. How I envy the self-confidence of the French actress Emmanuelle Béart, who declared in an interview: “Look, I’m 40, this is my body, this is my plenitude, these are my curves, I like them and I’m proud of them.”
The Romans might have told us, wisely, to aim for mens sana in corpore sano. But our present health crisis provokes a different classical response: O tempora! O mores! We have a lot to do to get fit for the future.