Why Hector Sants' serious burnout is a strange case

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Hector Sants is burnt out. The 58-year-old £3m-a-year ex-head of compliance at Barclays will be staying in Oxfordshire and won't be resuming his commute in and out of Canary Wharf come the new year. Sants' name has been swiftly erased from Barclays' website. Now that he's going to be staying in Oxford, Sants may be regretting his resignation as the chair of Said Business School last October. He may also be slightly regretting his decision to donate the last bonus he received as chairman of the FSA to charity. 

Sants' condition is clearly serious. The Times reports that he opted not to return to Barclays after his doctor warned that in doing so he, 'risked a relapse, or worse'. However, a new and detailed study into the predictors of burnout, by academics Colorado State University, suggest that Sants is an anomaly: most victims of burnout don't fit his (apparent) profile.

The academics studied 204 nurses, from trainee stage through to the early years of their careers.

They found that burnout was positively correlated to:

1. Inexperience: A high proportion of the subjects studied experienced burnout before they'd even finished their training. Burnout was highest in the first years of work. Thereafter, it declined. The academics suggested that this was due to the, "reality shock" of starting work.

At 58, however, Sants had been working for more than 35 years. He'd been a partner at Philips and Drew, chief executive of EMEA at Credit Suisse and chief executive of the FSA. In theory, he should have known how to handle stress - unless, of course, the reality of the Barclays job was so ovewhelming that he couldn't cope. The Telegraph suggests this was the case, claiming that Sants was floored by the 'sheer amount of work' required of him.

2. Neuroticism, low levels of agreeableness, low levels of conscientiousness 

The researchers found evidence that people with high levels of neuroticism (defined as a tendency to experience negative emotions), low levels of agreeableness (defined as being courteous, sympathetic, generous, acquiescent, and warm) and low levels of conscientiousness (defined as a tendency to be well-organized, self-disciplined, plan-adhering, careful, thorough, hardworking, and persevering) were more likely to experience burnout early in their careers.

Later in a career, high levels neuroticism and low levels of conscientiousness were predictors of burnout but being agreeable was less important.

Is Sants neurotic and lacking in conscientiousness? After such a long career in the City, this seems unlikely, even though the Financial Times claims that he rarely laughed.

3. A lack of detachment 

The Colorado study found that the biggest predictor of burnout late in a career was a lack of psychological detachment. They defined pychological detachment as 'the sense of being mentally away from work', of being 'not engaged in work-related activities' and 'not thinking about one’s work activities'. Their study suggested that a lack of psychological detachment has a significant lagged effect on the likelihood of burnout - you can go for years without switching off from work, but it will catch up with you eventually.

Was this Sants' problem? Maybe. However, he'd only worked at Barclays for 10 months and prior to joining he had a five-month break which should have restored his detachment quotient - unless he spent his time away reading briefing notes on his big job at Barclays.


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