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Stress and the Compliance Officer

Saturday, June 2, 2012
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It should come as no surprise that stress levels are elevated in every nook and cranny of the modern-day business world.

What may come as a shock, though, is how deeply it is affecting the holders of certain job titles, namely compliance and ethics officers.

According to a recent survey by the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics and the Health Care Compliance Association, nearly three in five (58 percent) respondents say they often wake up in the middle of the night worrying about job-related issues -- and 60 percent have considered quitting.

"Six out of 10 people waking up in the middle of the night from job-related stress is unacceptable for any profession," says Roy Snell, the Minneapolis-based CEO for both organizations. "The compliance profession's purpose is to prevent and detect the problems that have occurred in organizations such as Enron, Tyco and Penn State University.

"There are reasons those who [are not in] ... the compliance profession stopped short of fixing these problems," he says. That's because fixing such problems is very difficult and stressful.

"Compliance professionals, who are asked to do this difficult job, need support from leadership, reasonable authority and independence," he says. "If society wants to us deal with these issues -- so difficult that others have chosen to look the other way -- then society should make an effort to support this profession."

The survey of 970 compliance and ethics professionals finds the biggest contributors to on-the-job stress are keeping up with new and changing laws and regulations, preventing compliance and ethics violations, and remediating compliance and ethics violations.

Most compliance and ethics professionals also report adversarial relationships with their colleagues, adding to their stress levels. Indeed, 58 percent of respondents felt isolated or that they are in an adversarial situation with colleagues in other departments.

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Snell says the results of the survey are actually "worse than I expected -- and I expected it to be bad."

He says the responsibilities of the job are what make it such a source of stress, and that stress is compounded when compliance and ethics professionals do not feel supported by company leadership.

"Preventing, finding and fixing ethical and legal infractions are almost impossible without independence, authority and support from leadership," he says. "Protecting the organization from fines, bad PR or slipping into a negative culture requires a comprehensive commitment and considerable involvement from everyone in a leadership role."

Plus, he adds, "the consequences of failure [in this job versus others] are so significant."

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