3 ways stress can kill CEOs' performance

11 August 2019 by Marta Regina

Over the years, the literature on work-related stress has focused mainly on employees however very little on chief executive officers (CEOs). Despite little research in this area, work-related stress and burnout* are increasing in the top management of many organisations.

Stress is increasing in organisations' upper echelons. It is becoming a threat that jeopardizes not only the employees' health, but also that of the executive leadership. Currently, in the UK one in six employees states that their stress levels are “much higher” than only a year ago.

In 2011, Lloyd's CEO Antonio Horta-Osório announced that he wanted to take a leave of absence from his job due to exhaustion. In 2010, Pfizer's CEO Jeffrey Kindler left Pfizer because of the "24/7 nature was extremely demanding". In 2010, Connaught's CEO Mark Tincknell quit his job because of health issues. And these are just a few examples of high levels of stress at the most senior levels in the corporate world.

Because of the nature of their roles and responsibilities, CEOs play a key role in the company's performance and 

provide leadership and organisational structure which in turn impact greatly on the destiny of their organizations. It is absolutely critical to pay more attention to work-related stress and its negative consequences in these positions of top management.

After working internationally with top executives in major industries helping them to increase focus, performance, resilience and well-being, I am sharing three specific factors that make these work roles highly exposed to stress:


1. Dysfunctional organizational structure

The climate of the organisation where these people work impacts greatly on the likelihood of increasing their emotional exhaustion. A conflict of roles is a common example that results in a dysfunctional environment. Also, a board of directors narrow-minded and non-supportive focus on short-term goals, inappropriate organisational restructuring and consequently reduced resources to meet those demands from investors all contribute significantly to the stress at the CEO level.

2. Personal characteristics of the top executive

There are also personal characteristics that contribute to job burnout such as the age and the enterprising personality of the CEO. Frequently the older CEOs are less stressed out than the younger ones. They can also prevent stress when they are free to make their own decisions to solve problems or achieve the goals. Loss of control has been associated with higher levels of personal and emotional stress, work-related stress and burnout.

3. Pressure from the outside environment

The external environment that companies face has a fundamental impact on their performance. Untrammelled competition, high demands from stakeholders, uncertainty in the global economy, and perceived environmental hostility all contribute to the stress level of CEOs. As the environmental hostility perceived by the executive increases, his/her level of individual stress will also increase which in turn works its way through the organisation.

In my opinion, to reverse the effects of stress throughout an organisation, the practice of mindfulness might be useful to neutralize the fatigue and anxiety of employees and improve work performance. The frenetic pace to which people are subject to in top management can be daunting to start with certain Mindfulness techniques due to the shortage of time. That is why there are short customised programs for executive directors that are very effective and that are being adopted more widely. The leadership role the CEO plays has a direct impact on effecting change in any organisation and the introduction of Mindfulness techniques for stress reduction is no exception.


* What is burnout

It's a specific kind of work-related stress, which involves a chronic emotional exhaustion resulting in a depersonalization and a reduced level of professional accomplishment. The constant exposure to job stress is likely to lead to job burnout.

© 2019 by Marta Regina


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