Did You Know That Embattled CEOs Have Shorter Life Expectancies?

by | Aug 12, 2022 | Articles | 0 comments

Being a leader in the working world of today is far from a simple endeavor. Not only has the shape and structure of corporate America seemingly shifted overnight – but revitalized concerns regarding stress, overwork, and the overall health toll of our modern office environments have raised serious question marks for many business leaders.

This is true not only of those managers concerned for the welfare and capacity for productive, inspiring work in their teams. It’s also a question facing CEO and C-suite executives with growing and perhaps alarming frequency.

Committing to your annual executive health exams is one thing – but taking a proactive stance on your health and wellbeing is quite another. A good executive medical exam can flag up health concerns, certainly – yet the daily wear and tear of intensive, high-stress working environments may gouge deeper scars still in the psyche and physical capabilities of even the most seasoned of corporate leaders.

Fortunately, hope is not lost – the question is simply one of shifting strategies to move with the current times. If there is one thing CEOs and executives have learned to do well in the last few years, it’s rapidly pivoting to new realities – so, what are they?

Of leadership and legacy

Being a CEO or executive leader is not only a question of what you do to shape the business booming beneath you – it’s just as much the tale you leave behind. Leadership is strenuous, yet exhilarating – yet even the most promising of tenures can be cut short by poor health when commitments to self-care or executive health exams flounder by the wayside.

No leader in business today goes a day in the office without remembering the high risks to personal health promoted by stress and anxiety. Left unchecked, CEOs for whom stress has become a daily reality are far more likely to sit through executive health exams and discover complications with their cardiovascular system, or even the common cold.

Yet with problems such as depression and issues such as burnout proving incredibly damaging to our professional lives – in ways that are well documented – the realities of how these stressors can affect CEOs’ physical and personal lives are even more sobering.

In short, it’s not about the potential of having to step down from the business – it’s a question of your life as an individual altogether.

Leading research and executive health statistics

While most leaders commit to a comprehensive executive medical exam to ensure they can bring their best selves to work, a 2021 comprehensive insight into the true sphere of CEO health and wellbeing from the National Bureau of Economic Research paints a far more concerning picture.

While research on workplace stressors is widespread, the decision by NBER to evaluate the health concerns and risks to physical wellbeing in CEOs explicitly was chosen due to CEOs being unlikely to suffer the same financial stressors seen in lower-ranking members of staff.

Data gleaned from CEOs in a range of highly stressful and challenging business circumstances showed a highly concerning trend towards a shortening lifespan and overall loss in quality of life for these leaders – as we will explore in greater depth below. 


NBER study stressor 1 – Hostile takeover risk

Even a cursory glance at the complicated narrative that has unfolded between Twitter shareholders and Elon Musk can demonstrate the loggerheads at which leaders and entities can become embroiled with where hostile takeover attempts are concerned.

The NBER CEO Stress, Aging, and Death report (NBER Working Paper 28550) explored how CEOs in major United States organizations reacted to the stress and anxiety of an imminent, implied, or even ambient risk of hostile takeover towards their businesses – and how that was reflected in executive health exams.

Thirty-three US states uphold business combination statutes that render the risks of a hostile takeover to a given corporate entity that much more difficult. Understandably, those states in which such regulatory frameworks are present demonstrated an active CEO population far less inclined towards stress-related diseases and shortened life expectancy in their executive health exams.

As you can appreciate, the level of underlying tension and paranoia – and associated health conditions – shown in an executive medical exam from a state in which such safeguards did not exist was far greater.

In short, a CEO leading a business in a state with greater protection against hostile takeover enjoyed a longer average lifespan. This equates to around a five percent lower annual mortality rate, or around two years’ longer life. 

NBER study stressor 2 – Difficult economic climates

From downturns to global health crises, from stock crashes to national currency complications, more than a handful of executive health exams are affected negatively by unpredictable and strenuous economic factors.

No leader wants to make the call on downsizing teams, liquidating assets, or performing to ever higher KPIs in a business environment in which the normal rules seem to no longer apply.

Naturally, stress and anxiety become a constant under such circumstances, and affect CEO’s health and wellbeing accordingly.

Of the 1,605 CEOs studied for NBER’s research, forty percent indicated that they had weathered the storms of significant periods of industry distress.

When such industry distress conflated with their tenure in positions of leadership, even the most optimistic executive medical exam results could not prevent said leaders from dying 1.5 years earlier than their contemporaries.

A standout interval in modern history for industry distress – indeed, at a global scale – is the 2008 financial crisis. Using advanced computer-generated imagery and analytics, NBER researchers were able to calculate that CEOs who withstood the crisis in a leadership position did not escape unscathed – aging the equivalent of 1.2 years versus leaders who didn’t hold their positions during the same timeframe.

How to overcome the embattled executive experience

With the stakes demonstrably high – to the extent that this is not just business, but personal – how best can CEOs and other C-suite executives maintain a happy, healthy, and productive working life in a world that seems determined to grow ever more complicated at every turn?

Much of the answer rests in understanding the connection between mental and physical health. Whereas the idea of one affecting the other was once disregarded as new age thinking or pseudoscience, today there are demonstrable and proven links between your mental health and your physical wellbeing.

How best to bridge the gap, enjoy your work and fulfill your career goals safely and healthily?

Regular medical evaluations

The old adage about an ounce of prevention versus a pound of cure is as true now as it ever has been in times gone by. That means even a CEO with the most hectic work schedule and family commitments imaginable owes it to him or herself to engage in a thorough executive medical exam.

Executive health exams are often conducted every year or two – and while effective, there is reason to believe this may simply not be enough. With the world changing as rapidly as it is, and with the last few years proving how swiftly the entire healthcare infrastructure of the planet can be taken to task almost overnight, frequent executive health exams should be six monthly or quarterly, if not more frequently.

Giving time to an executive medical exam today could well recognize and advise against a physical ailment or pending diagnosis far before it has the chance to disrupt both your professional and personal lives later down the line. Anything you can nip in the bud early is going to hold you in very good stead going forward.

Practicing compassion, you preach

Good leaders know that a healthy team is a happy team – and happy workers are considerably more loyal and productive. The growth in workplace practices such as mindfulness and mental health breaks need not be the purview of those lower in your corporate hierarchy, however.

CEOs may commit to executive health exams and take time out as and when they can finally cajole themselves into taking a breather – but are you truly leading by example where more mindful and mentally healthy strategies are concerned?

Remember that many of your staff, consciously or not, look to leadership as a role model and a benchmark for their own expectations. A well-oiled machine of an enterprise will not crumble to dust if you dare to take a mental health day or a mindfulness break when circumstances demand it – and we all know this is the exact same advice you’d give a trusted worker if they were feeling burnt out.

Therefore, why not act on your own advice – nonverbally signaling to your staff that it’s okay to put oneself before the business sometimes for the greater good?

You are the executive you eat

Is a power lunch always the answer? Is cramming a meal into a half-hour interval between Zoom calls really doing your energy levels, waistline, or mental acuity much kindness?

As we’ve discussed in another article, eating healthy as a busy executive takes mindfulness and intentionality.  Just as essential to your health is not just finding the dietary needs that best suit you – but it is also ensuring that you use the opportunity for a meal to truly decompress and disentangle when you eat from when you work.

Everyone, from your receptionist to members of your board, has been guilty of a desk lunch when deadlines are tight from time to time. However, the health benefits of actually giving meals the time and full focus that they deserve will help to sharpen the mind, quieten your doubts – and simply invite your senses to more fully soak in the flavor.

Setting boundaries between work and personal time

A CEO is entangled with the fortunes and foibles of the organization that they lead in ways that simply no other employee or executive ever can be. The nature of the role is demanding and somewhat total – in essence, your personal identity and your corporate persona become one and the same.

While truly segregating work and personal life can be something of a myth, there is still every opportunity to set intelligent boundaries between your leisure time and your leadership role.

Echoing sentiments we have already covered, what use is a business in which the Right to Disconnect is being observed in office and manufacturing staff – if leadership remains so enmeshed in a 24-hour workstyle that every executive medical exam brings up diagnosis after diagnosis?

The key to preventative medical care for CEOs is proactivity

While it’s safe to say that a pioneering spirit and the position of company CEO tend to go hand in hand in many respects, there remains a concerning lack of conscious self-care evident in many business leaders today, and many never become the CEO of their own health.

In many respects, given the pressures of leadership and the expectations on CEOs as demonstrated on all sides, this is a perfectly understandable state of mind. Yet that does not necessarily mean it is the philosophy best suited to prolonging both your active career years and your overall healthy lifespan.

While it can be daunting to consider that the stakes truly can be so high, we absolutely believe that this is an invitation for you to take a moment and reflect. Nobody attains a leadership role without sacrifice – but how much of yourself, truly, is it really appropriate to give away in pursuit of one more milestone, yet another accolade or the mitigation of just another crisis?

Truly, overcoming this risk to your professional and personal well-being means not just a promise for more executive health exams and some smarter eating habits. Instead, it is a question of prioritizing your physical, emotional, and mental health to the same extent as you do the needs of your team and your business – if not more.

Fortunately, proactively committing to a more balanced, reasonable, and intelligent regimen of executive medical exam attendance and measured responses to corporate stressors is not something that needs to be complex.

In fact, you will often find that advice and assistance is a short email or call away – and with it, the capacity to unlock your best self and invite them to take the reins in leading your organization to success once again.