David Jones chief executive Paul Zahra steps down citing “relentless” hours: How can SMEs avoid burn out?

David Jones chief executive and managing director Paul Zahra’s announcement that he will step down from the top job has put the spotlight on the pressures faced by company leaders.

Zahra has been candid in his reasons for resigning from the department store retailer after three-and-a-half years at the helm. He will move on as soon as a suitable replacement is found, which could take many months.

“Whilst much has been achieved and the Company is well placed for the future, I believe it’s time for a change for me personally,” Mr Zahra said.

The department store retailer stated that Zahra was appointed when the company was “facing a range of difficult issues”.

“He has successfully guided the Company through the aftermath of the global financial crisis and a challenging retail environment and led The Future Strategic Direction Plan, which is well into implementation,” a statement said.

Zahra told The Australian Financial Review his tenure had been challenging. He took on the role after his predecessor Mark McInnes departed amid a prominent sexual harassment case, and said the media scrutiny at the time was “horrible”.

It was reported that Zahra cited the tough workload as one cause for his decision.

“For many CEOs the hours are relentless – you’re working around the clock seven days of the week… I need a break,” he said.

While Zahra controls one of Australia’s most prominent businesses, his words will be familiar to many small to medium business owners, who often work around the clock in a bid to keep ahead.

The Happiness Institute psychologist and executive coach Dr Tim Sharp told SmartCompany the concept of “burn out” is prominent among business owners, due to the pressures of keeping a company afloat.

He says the term “burn out” is not a technical diagnosis, but is used to encompass a range of experiences, inducing stress, unhappiness and exhaustion. In more extreme cases, “burn out” could include elements of depression or anxiety.

“There is not a direct correlation between more work hours and more stress,” he says.

Sharp explains that many business owners love their jobs, and are happy to put in long days, some doing 50, 60 or 70 hours of work a week.

“But each extra hour worked is an hour you are not going to the gym, or seeing family or friends or loved ones, and this has an impact on your health and wellbeing.”

Sharp says a flow-on problem with business owners getting burn out is that the business performance can suffer. Even if they feel they are too busy to take time out, Sharp says it is vital.

Activities such as mediation, sport, or simply resting must be prioritised in order to come back to work fresh.

He explains that in professional sport, rest, recovery and relaxation are seen as a vital part of training, but in the business world more hours are seen as more value.

“The idea that more hours is better is a fallacy,” he says.

“After a certain point you are inefficient, and you have to come back and fix mistakes… No one can function at their best working 12 to 14 hours a day.

“If you want to be successful, you need to switch off at times. There is no right or wrong way to do it…it will keep your mind fresh.”


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