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Compliance professionals don’t have an easy job, and with the constantly evolving global business landscape and prominence of ethics and compliance risks, it’s only becoming more stressful. In this blog post, we’ll review some of the challenges facing compliance officers and how anyone in this position can take care of themselves to ease stress, reduce anxiety, and prevent burnout. 

A survey conducted in 2012 by the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA) revealed that compliance officers face such high degrees of job-related stress that 58% of them wake up in the middle of the night in a state of anxiety. Today, as the role and responsibilities of the compliance officer continue to grow, not much has changed to reduce the anxiety of the job. CCOs, CECOs, and other positions that serve as the compliance lead in their organization are in high-stress, high-pressure roles that are often difficult to unplug and switch off. They’re responsible for dealing with violations, effectively training every member of their company, applying and reinforcing the lessons from that training throughout the year, and serving as a support system for colleagues whenever they need advice or guidance in potentially risky, unethical situations.

The role of compliance professional can be equal parts teacher, therapist, and doctor. With so much on their plate and so many different hats to wear, it’s easy to understand why the job can cause stress and anxiety. On top of that, the Yates Memo, Weissmann Memo, and other SEC and DOJ guidelines have led to increasing concern over personal liability. Today, compliance officers are constantly under the microscope of their Boards of Directors and C-Suite, whose awareness and understanding of the consequences of ethics and compliance violations are at an all-time high.

According to the HCCA, the six biggest causes of stress for compliance officers are: 

  1. Keeping up with new laws and regulations
  2. Identifying risks
  3. Preventing ethics and compliance violations
  4. Detecting ethics and compliance violations
  5. Investigating alleged violations
  6. Remediating violations

Interested in sharing your own experiences around stress in the role? Take our anonymous two-minute survey.

If you’re feeling stressed, overworked, overwhelmed, and on the verge of crashing, take comfort in knowing that it’s not just you. Research conducted by the American Psychological Association and Dr. Travis Bradberry shows that:

  • 48% of Americans have experienced an increase in stress over the past five years
  • 31% of employed adults have difficulty managing their work and family responsibilities
  • 53% say work leaves them overtired and overwhelmed

The HCCA reports that burnout can result in reduced productivity at work, reduced commitment to your responsibilities and organization, and higher turnover. The negative tone and body language that comes with burnout can also spread throughout your team, spill over into your personal life, pose health risks, and lead to depression. So what can ethics and compliance professionals do?

We want to share some practical advice and tips to help our community of compliance professionals, who are responsible for taking care of so many others, manage the stress that comes with the responsibility of their role and take care of themselves. The first piece of advice may seem obvious, and it may seem impossible given the ‘always on’ nature of the job, but nonetheless, it’s clinically proven to make you feel happier, more positive, more energized, and it’s entirely ethical. Take your vacation days!

According to new research conducted by Project: Time Off in their State of American Vacation 2016 report, a record-setting 658,000,000 vacation days went unused across the country last year. In fact, 55% of American workers left vacation time remaining in 2015, and the number of total wasted days was 35% higher than any previous year in recorded history. By studying trends in vacation usage over time, they’ve discovered that we’re taking an entire week less vacation than we averaged from 1978 – 2000.

An interesting psychological aspect of the study revealed that managers and senior employees are the most powerful influencers when it comes to other employees taking a vacation. 80% of employees would be more likely to take time off if they felt it was supported and encouraged by their boss. That’s a new perspective on setting a tone from the top and middle that we don’t see discussed often, so when’s the last time you took a vacation?

The June 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review covered the topic of ‘Managing the High-Intensity Workplace‘, sharing three tips to mitigate the risks of high-pressure jobs like the Chief Compliance Officer:

  1. Make time for other aspects of your life outside of work
  2. Don’t hold your colleagues and teammates to the same standard you hold yourself
  3. Be willing and open to trying new things at work and alternative solutions to problems

One person who has publically spoken out and written about the dangers of burning out and high-stress jobs is Arianna Huffington. She’s the co-founder of the Huffington Post and currently the founder of Thrive Global. Overworked and exhausted, her perspective on work/life balance changed when she fainted from exhaustion in her office, hit her head on a desk, and broke her job. In her book Thrive, Huffington details twelve steps she took to recover from burnout and restore balance to her life.

Self Care for Ethics and Compliance Officers

In addition to the lessons we can learn from Arianna Huffington’s personal experiences, we want to share some direct advice from a few people who have been in your shoes. We asked three compliance experts to share how they reduce stress and fight burnout.

Tina Stinson-Dacruz, Compliance Learning Officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York

“Know when enough is enough! It is natural, after spending teh workday unravelling a myriad of issues, to continue to mull over the day’s events either by discussing them with a friend/spouce/partner or inside your own head. Continuing to re-examine negative events can quickly nosedive into a negative mindset.”

“Create a network of support among friends and colleagues. Having a group of people who truly understand the work, the organization culture, or you as a person can help alleviate the stress.”

“Get a hobby. Find one that brings you joy outside of the workplace and helps you feel fulfilled beyond your role as a compliance professional. If nothing readily comes to mind, you might want to take up the current trend of adult coloring books. While there is some debate on the effect of coloring books on an individual’s ability to engage in creative activity, the practice has been adopted by an ever growing number of adults looking for ways to manage stress and increase mindfulness.”

Kim Yapchai, Chief Compliance Officer at Whirlpool Corporation 

“I like to keep my team motivated and inspired by incorporating fun into what we do. A recent example of that was a compliance session we held at our Global Legal Conference. We kept our session a secret from everyone, which made it mysterious and built excitement. It also helped the team practice keeping things confidential, which we often have to do. For the actual session in Chicago, we did a fun place on words with Chicago Speakeasies, complete with a gangster actor and a fake police raid at the end. Of course, the Whirlpool SpeakEasy was focused on compliance and speaking up, not breaking the law. As attendees completed each station, they even got a sticker in the shape of a prohibition era cocktail. By building fun into what we do, I have found that in addition to motivating the team, it motivates employees as well – win/win. Positive things like this help to balance the stress of the job.

Paula Davis, SAI Global’s VP of Learning 

Practice what you preach. Whether it’s directly included in our title or just an implicit aspect of the job, everyone working in compliance also has an obligation to conduct themselves ethically and act as a role model when it comes to organizational values. It’s not a compliance violation or regulatory infraction to work in a stressful environment, but when so much of our time is spent emphasizing the improtance of doing the right thing to our colleagues, it’s important we remember that lesson ourselves. When we take care of ourselves, we take care of our team and perform at a higher level, and that isn’t just the right thing to do from an ethics perspective, it’s the effective thing to do from a business perspective.

Let’s empower the ethics and compliance community and fight burnout together. We want to hear about what you do to help manage anxiety in your role and create a stress-free environment for your team. Speak up and let us know by emailing any tips, tactics, advice, or strategies you have to complianceofficerday@saiglobal.com.