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Fighting CFO burnout

Brexit, big data and global business pressures are taking their toll on chief financial officers

The pressure is on the CFO to navigate global economic uncertainty, as signs of burnout and stress are surfacing within this ever-​dynamic role.

The latest Deloitte CFO survey found Brexit remains the top concern for UK finance chiefs, followed by the push to cut costs and staff. Meanwhile, a report by recruitment agency Robert Half revealed three in four CFOs globally anticipate stress levels will escalate in the face of tighter business expectations.

Paul Venables, UK group finance director of recruitment company Hays, agrees the CFO role is a relentless job, where the day-​to-​day demands are increasing against rapid economic, business and technological flux.

“The need to reorganise and restructure finance functions on a global scale to drive efficiencies is just one of many challenges facing today’s CFO,” he explains. “In the UK, we have the added uncertainty of Brexit. It’s no wonder CFOs are feeling increased pressure.”

Warning signs of executive director burnout

Mr Venables, who has been a CFO of numerous enterprises over the last 25 years, says he’s personally faced some very difficult times, such as the Lehman’s crash in 2008, coming under prolonged stress on several occasions and had been close to burnout.

It’s critical that CFOs understand the difference between “pressure”, “some stress” and “continued stress”, as the latter often leads to burnout, he says. For CFOs feeling the symptoms and signs of burnout, Mr Venables recommends they are open and honest with themselves, as well as their friends, family and support networks.

“They will often see changes in you, if you are struggling to sleep, cannot switch off or losing your temper,” he explains. “When you see these signs, have a weekend off or speak to your boss about taking some time off work. See this, both in yourself and your team, as a strength and not a weakness.”

Michael Kreeft, CFO at BMW, UK, agrees CFOs are short of being “miracle workers”, and signs of burnout are definitely something to watch out for. He suggests regularly taking time to reflect on the business, how targets are being achieved and finding process improvements to ensure resources are being used in more efficient ways.

It’s critical CFOs understand the difference between ‘pressure’, ‘some stress’ and ‘continued stress’, as the latter often leads to burnout

“On a personal level, you need to also ensure you have a healthy work-​life balance, and this includes paying attention to healthy eating, regular exercise and spending quality time with friends and family,” says Mr Kreeft. “As a CFO, you have to ‘walk the talk’, so it’s important to address these issues with the rest of your team. After all, our role is about motivating and inspiring.”

Big data, technology and the CFO role

The always-​on global environment is also becoming a greater workload burden for CFOs, as growing volumes of data and its immediate availability actually slow down decision-​making processes, according to Markus Kobler, global CFO at Allianz Global Investors.

“A CFO needs to be able to handle the constant ebb and flow of information and ensure the best financial steering, while challenging the organisation to move ahead,” he adds. “This has become an around-​the-​clock job that may be taxing and requires individual ways of coping with it.”

Adrian Talbot, group CFO at communications firm Hotwire and winner of the 2019 International CFO of the Year Award, concurs. He warns that in the age of big data and technological change, failing to create the right support team is one of the biggest contributing factors to executive director burnout.

“In finance it is often very easy just to get on with the job and hard to judge when you need to upscale or upskill your team,” says Mr Talbot. “And one of the biggest misconceptions in the industry is that if you’re senior in an organisation, you have risen to the top because you’re ‘bullet proof’. The reality is that a CFO is human, just like everyone else.”

He recalls that prior to starting his current role, he had to take a week out of the office at a very stressful time, when he felt the signs of burnout.

“It made me feel like an utter failure,” he says. “I became withdrawn and even considered other careers. But I only needed that one week to regain my perspective. Now I would definitely recognise the signs of burnout and know it’s better to act sooner than become extremely stressed.

“I’ve also learnt the most important relationship for a CFO is with the CEO. To be able to express yourself freely and be heard and supported by your CEO is vital for you and for the business too.”

Supporting and balancing the finance function

Within the fast-​changing media agency landscape, the pressure is on CFOs to keep a healthy perspective and “ride the client curve”. Stuart Diamond, global CFO at GroupM, which has more than 35,000 employees worldwide, curbs stress and burnout by planning and preparing for peak client times, and then takes advantage of the company’s flexible working programme during off-​peak times.

“Agency environments are demanding across the board and can involve long hours when helping our brand clients do things, like launch new products or execute big campaigns,” he says.

“But physical and mental wellbeing needs to remain top of the agenda. That’s why we have a benefits programme that includes things like flexible work schedules, wellness centres in our offices and programmes for working parents. I personally enjoy and take advantage of these benefits.”

Meanwhile, for fast-​growing technology companies that are scaling globally, managing CFO burnout is all about alignment with stakeholders and getting the balance right, says Mark Finn, CFO and co-​founder of all-​in-​one software platform ROLLER.

“You can’t please everyone all of the time, but if you understand their priorities, you are better placed to maximise their collective interests over the long term,” he explains. “Being a truly effective CFO is about allocating resources efficiently over the long term and you have to be good at prioritising. It’s also wise not to try to do it all in the first place. It’s a journey, not a race.”