Running Commentary

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the millennium. Stress, an old friend I've lived fairly comfortably with in my 30-plus years as an administrator, took me down a notch or two. We all live stressful lives to varying degrees, so I'm sharing my experience for any value it might have to you.

Health has always been very important to me. I believe we are personally responsible for our own health, and I've worked hard to stay healthy by exercising, eating sensibly and generally taking care of myself.

Or so I thought. I've certainly been aware that work stress is a major health risk factor--I've even given lectures on the topic--but I never really thought it applied to me.

Being APA's chief executive officer is a high-stress job, but I welcome the challenges and rewards, and I truly enjoy my work. I've had a thorough physical examination every year, and the results did not indicate any stress-related problems, so I began to feel pretty invulnerable.

The toll of stress

That all changed last spring when an article on child sexual abuse published in the Psychological Bulletin over a year earlier suddenly became the subject of a firestorm of unjustified attacks by Congress and the media. Attacks on APA are, for me, even worse than personal attacks, and as the crisis continued month after month, the stress increased. I felt energized and highly focused throughout the whole ordeal, but when it was over, I felt drained and totally exhausted. After several years of not having so much as a cold, I suddenly began coming down with everything that was going around. Representing APA at an international meeting in July, I contracted some unknown bug, and came home thoroughly ill and severely fatigued. That continued through the summer and into the fall.

The reports I received on my physical examinations prior to 1999 indicated that I was in excellent physical condition with no signs of any significant health problems. My most recent physical examination, in October, gave a different picture. According to my physician, the prolonged stress had resulted in a state of decreased immunity. My blood pressure, which had always been excellent, was elevated. My heart, which had functioned without complaint through 15 marathons, had begun to develop atypical rhythms and erratic timing. My physician reassured me that there was no indication of any permanent damage, but he advised me to take a six-month leave of absence to help me return to my normal state of good health.

Be assured, I'll be back

I reluctantly decided to take a leave of absence, effective Jan. 1, 2000. Being away from APA business for even a few days is difficult for me, and deciding to leave for six months was one of the hardest decisions I've ever made. The Board of Directors and the Council of Representatives strongly supported my decision, as did the APA staff. I believe the Central Office is in excellent shape and that the outstanding staff we have will keep it so. Mike Honaker, Deputy CEO, will be in charge in my absence, and the members of the senior staff will assume various parts of my duties as appropriate.

As psychologists we are all very aware of the effects that stress can have on one's health. We've been leaders teaching people how to manage their stress, but my observation is that many of us don't do so well in applying that information to ourselves. My personal experience tells me that I have to build in more small down-times to avoid a large one and that good time management doesn't mean working every possible minute.

My plan for the next six months is to focus on getting better and finding better ways to apply stress management techniques to myself. Although unwanted, my experience has been a useful wake-up call that will be helpful to me in the future. I am fortunate that my condition is reversible--I just need to get off the front line for a while. I will resume my full responsibilities in June. Being CEO of APA is one of the most interesting jobs in the world, and I'll be glad to be back.