Managerial Stress Can Literally Take Years Off Your Life

Managerial Stress Can Literally Take Years Off Your Life

Here’s some disturbing news for current and aspiring chief executives; being CEO during an industry-wide downturn could reduce your lifespan by 1.5 years. And this is just one of the shocking findings from a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper called “CEO Stress, Aging and Death.”

It’s a truism that CEOs have stressful jobs, but this robust analysis of more than 1,600 chief executives reveals disturbing truths about the effects of stress on their mortality and aging.

Here’s an example from the study: Starting in the mid-eighties, 33 states passed anti-takeover laws that serve to make hostile takeovers more difficult. When those laws passed, CEO’s jobs got a bit easier and less stressful. There’s evidence that CEOs weren’t as tough in employee negotiations nor did they close as many plants. Essentially, when the CEO isn’t losing sleep over a looming hostile takeover, they don’t need to make as many painful decisions and the job feels less stressful.

By investigating and analyzing the birth and death dates of CEOs, the researchers discovered that when a CEO is protected by anti-takeover laws, their lifespan increases by two years. Or put another way, as the study notes, “For a typical CEO, the effect of the anti-takeover laws is equivalent to making the CEO two years younger.”

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Not only will chief executives ostensibly sleep better with anti-takeover laws and less threat of hostile takeovers, the data shows they actually live longer. And it’s not just the presence or absence of anti-takeover laws that significantly impact mortality.

About 40% of the CEOs studied experienced industry-wide distress, defined as an “industry-wide 30%-decline in equity value over a two-year horizon.” The Great Recession, for example, exposed many industries to this kind of distress.

When chief executives experience industry-wide distress, the researchers discovered that CEOs’ lifespans decrease by 1.5 years. Lest you think that 1.5 years isn’t all that much, the authors offer a powerful reference point, noting that, “smoking until age 30 is associated with a reduction in longevity by roughly one year.”

Finally, using cutting-edge machine learning (i.e., convolutional neural networks), the study analyzed more than 3,000 pictures from CEOs who experienced industry-wide shocks during the Great Recession. With the software able to detect signs of visible aging, the researchers discovered that CEOs who experienced industry distress during that time look about one year older than the CEOs whose industries didn’t suffer. If you’ve ever seen those side-by-side pictures of US presidents showing how they aged from taking to leaving office, you understand the signs of visible aging.

This study does a brilliant job of demonstrating that stress, and particularly managerial stress, isn’t just unpleasant; it can literally reduce lifespans. And given the stress facing all levels of employees over the past year, this should make us wonder what’s happening to everyone else in the company.

It’s arguable that CEOs are actually better equipped to handle work stress (e.g., industry shocks and the threat of hostile takeovers) than the typical frontline employee. After all, the people who aspire to the top spot self-selected into a career track with long hours, intense stress and often cutthroat competition. We can presume that they had at least some idea of what they were getting into. That, in turn, suggests that they had (or believed they had) moderate to high levels of resilience (the ability to bounce back quickly from adversity).

If CEOs with moderate resilience are experiencing shorter lifespans from stress, what’s happening to the other 99% of employees?

One of my studies, called “Employees Need More Resilience,” asked more than 30,000 employees a question that’s a classic test of resilience: “When I really make a mistake, I immediately start looking for another chance to try again.” We discovered that while 27% of employees say they “Always” start looking for another chance to try again, 20% say they “Rarely” or “Never” do.

Data from the online Resiliency Test has discovered that fewer than a quarter of people have high resilience right now. If resilience is in somewhat short supply currently, the average person’s ability to withstand and recover from work stress will be seriously diminished. And we should at least wonder what effects this might have on the lifespans, aging and health of frontline employees. While CEOs opted into a high-stress career track, it’s tough to argue that applies to the majority of employees.

The NBER paper’s authors, Mark Borgschulte, Marius Guenzel, Canyao Liu, and Ulrike Malmendier, deserve our thanks for their herculean and innovative study, and for demonstrating the very real life-and-death effects of work and managerial stress. Now it’s up to the rest of us to take their insights and start mitigating these negative effects for everyone else.

I’m the founder of www.LeadershipIQ.com, a New York Times bestselling author and I teach the leadership course What Great Managers Do Differently I am the author of five

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