Why bankers and other stressed-out executives need micro breaks

Jill Margo In The Media

Dr Linda Friedland has given up trying to persuade executives to take big relaxing breaks and normalise. That message is so well worn it's become background noise.

Rather, as a consultant for the executive education program CLSA U, she provides techniques they can privately use to take micro breaks that go unnoticed by those around them.

To be effective, she says a break does not have to be big. Three minutes can make a significant difference to performance over the next 90 minutes.

Friedland was in Melbourne and Sydney earlier this month conducting sessions for top executives in investment banking and fund management who use the research services of CSLA and receive bonus personal coaching too.

She says these executives have taken personal exhaustion and depletion into a new dimension. Hyper-adrenalised, they live with a continual sense of urgency and feel chronically short of time.

Addicted to the pace, they suffer from what some call 'hurry sickness'. They put pressure on those around them and even when there is no real need to rush they're in a hurry to pack in as much as possible.

For them, the notion of unstructured "spare time" is a quaint anachronism. It's what people used to have. 

But does this matter? Yes, says Friedland, because an unrelieved sense of urgency and anxiety increases the output of the stress hormone cortisol which, over time, depletes muscle, erodes bone and suppresses immunity.

Cortisol doesn't make them obviously ill but gradually reduces their natural defences against illness.

Friedland, a medical doctor, best-selling author, international keynote speaker and mother of five in Perth, says recovery is crucial for high performance.

She compares the elite athlete with the elite executive. Both strive for excellence but their methodology is different.

Recovery phase

A recovery phase is built into the athlete's regime. He trains a lot, he performs in short bouts and then he recovers. During recovery, which is highly valued, important physiological activity takes place in his body and brain.

During his performance he engages fully with stress, his adrenaline is sky high and in pursuit of his goal, he damages muscle fibres and other cells.

When he stops, his adrenaline switches off and that's when the growth and development takes place. As his muscles heal and strengthen, so his brain processes the event laying down useful pathways for the future. This can only happen in recovery, says Friedland.

"Most stress is good for us. It drives us, it's good for our passion and it helps us triumph. It's directly proportional to our performance but without disciplined rest, we reach a peak and fall off the curve."


But the executive culture makes no provision for recovery. This stage of an executive's life cycle is absent. Rather, the culture promotes sustained function. Unlike the athlete, the executive devotes almost no time to training and performs on demand many hours a day. He has no off-season and only gets a few weeks at Christmas.

While a professional athletic career spans about seven years, he is likely to work for 30 to 40 years.

Importantly, while athletic performance requires body and brain, the executive's work is regarded as a "neck-up" activity, with little attention to the physical capacity on which it rests.

It's not unusual for an executive to drag his exhausted body to work, slump it in a chair and then expect peak performance from his head – as if the two operated independently.

Friedland says as the stress builds, his body can't tell the difference between good stress and bad stress. For it, stress is simply the physiological release of adrenaline.

This hormone primes his body for action. Blood shunts away from central organs and pumps the large muscles for fight or flight. But there's no movement. He just sits.

"Normally, we swing between having adrenaline switched on and having it switched off. But in many executives, it's on almost all the time. They've overridden the off switch and even go to bed and then wake with adrenaline pumping."

"They are in a state of chronic adaptation which leads to the release of higher levels of cortisol which, among other things, keeps them numb," she says.

"If there was an antidote to adrenaline it would be in a bottle. As there isn't one, we have to use techniques to switch it off."

The data supporting the use of standing desks suggests it is not possible to sit for longer than 45 to 90 minutes without a fall-off in concentration and, over time, some adverse physical effects.

In a ten hour day, she says an executive would need a total of 20 to 30 minutes of strategic recovery to keep going.

Micro breaks

Ideally, this would mean micro breaks of three to five minutes every 90 minutes. Having coffee, checking personal emails or chatting to a mate doesn't count.

"While meditation or a mindfulness activity is excellent of the techniques I've shared with hundreds of clients globally, there are two stand-outs. These require no app or instruction manual. The first is controlled slow breathing."

After blocking visual stimuli by turning the screen to black or closing the eyes, she suggests breathing out for a count of four, in for a count of four and then holding it for a count of four.

Repeating that four times takes a minute and is sufficient to switch the body into recovery. That done, she suggests getting up, walking to get some water and if possible, stretching a little before sitting again.

The shift to recovery won't be immediately apparent but eventually, with repetition, it will.

The second technique involves music. Retailers know that music with beats faster than the average heartbeat both motivates and energises shoppers.

Friedland suggests having a playlist of mellow music on the phone which has a beat slower than the normal 70 heart beats a minute

She suggests turning the screen to black, putting in earphones and listening for three minutes. "Just as l you can slow breathing, so this music will slow the heart rate. Both intervene in the autonomic nervous system and shift the body from stress to relaxation and recovery."

Out of the office there are many techniques to switch off adrenaline. Friedland says the most powerful is exercise. "After a run or a gym session, in place of toxic tiredness there is pleasant weariness."

*Dr Linda Friedland is related to Jill Margo.

This article was first published on www.afr.com

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