Mind Over Matter? How Stress Affects the Health of Your C-Suite
Nearly one-quarter (22 percent) of senior management staff report feeling stress on a daily basis.
Now more than ever, C-suite executives (CEOs, CFOs, CMOs, etc.) need more support for their mental health to cope with all the stress and anxiety coming their way.
These pressures can contribute to a wide range of health issues, from weight gain and hypertension to cardiovascular crises. They also impact productivity and job performance.
This guide breaks down the negative effects of stress on the health of your C-Suite. It also provides some actionable steps you can take to provide stress relief and work and set your executives up for better long-term health and wellness.
Stress and C-Suite Executives: What the Data Says
For those who work as an executive or are in a leadership role, stress is an unavoidable part of the job.
It doesn’t matter if you’re managing dozens of employees or hundreds. There’s no denying you have a lot on your plate.
Stress might be common, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be problematic.
The following are some of the most important revelations recent studies have revealed when it comes to the effects of stress on the health of C-Suite executives:
Nearly Half of CEOs Struggle with a Mental Health Condition
This study shows that 49 percent of CEOs struggle with a mental health condition (anxiety, depression, etc.). The majority of CEOs who participated in the study also revealed that they feel overworked, are facing fatigue, and are suffering from chronic stress.
It’s not hard to understand why CEOs are so stressed. After all, many of them feel a great deal of responsibility for their organization’s mood and reputation. This can get overwhelming, fast, especially when you combine it with the pressure they feel to show up as strong, capable leaders.
CEOs Are More Prone to Health Issues
Another study reveals that CEOs are more likely to develop mental health issues than other workers. This might have to do with the fact that CEOs tend to share certain character traits, including the following:
- Being extremely conscientious
- Being excellent multitaskers
- Being forward thinkers who always anticipate worst-case scenarios
- Being hyper-vigilant to ensure top quality
All of these characteristics can contribute to a person’s anxiety, impact their sleep, and result in more serious physical and mental health issues over time.
CEOs Are Often Lonely
Working as a CEO or another C-suite executive can also be lonely and isolating. After all, when you’re at the top of a company, you often don’t have a lot of other people who can understand your struggles and relate to your situation.
The results of one study showed that 50 percent of CEOs have experienced feelings of loneliness in their careers. Furthermore, 61 percent said that these feelings hinder their performance.
Senior managers also tend to be lonelier outside of work. Because of the demands of their jobs, it can be hard for them to build strong bonds and foster lasting relationships.
Ongoing loneliness can worsen mental health and increase one’s risk of developing several conditions, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, and low self-esteem.
What Happens When You’re Stressed?
Regardless of the size of their business or the industry in which they work, every C-suite executive has experienced stress at some point. Even though they’re familiar with stress, though, they might not know exactly what is happening in their body when stress happens.
Here’s a simple breakdown of what happens internally when you experience stress:
- You experience a stressful event;
- The hypothalamus — a portion of your brain that controls the autonomic nervous system — tells the adrenal glands to release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol;
- Adrenaline and cortisol increase your heart rate, and send blood to your muscles and other vital organs;
- Your body goes into a “fight or flight” state so you’re better equipped to handle the stressful event.
Ideally, after the stressful event ends, your hypothalamus tells all the systems that were just activated to return to normal. If this doesn’t happen, though, or if the stressful event doesn’t go away, you’ll stay in a “fight or flight” state.
Is Stress Always Bad?
In small doses, stress can be positive. It keeps us alert and focused while we deal with difficult challenges, like meeting a deadline or delivering a presentation to a high-paying client.
The returns start to diminish, though, if stress goes on for too long or becomes a chronic issue. Eventually, it can cause serious problems with our health.
Signs of Stress
Some C-suite executives are so used to stressful experiences that they don’t even realize how stressed out they are.
The following are some of the psychological, physical, and behavioral symptoms you might face when your stress levels are elevated:
On the psychological side, you might notice increases in the following feelings:
- Racing thoughts
You might also notice the following start to decrease:
- Ability to enjoy yourself
- Ability to focus
- Interest in life
- Sense of humor
Stress can also affect you physically by causing or worsening the following:
- Trouble breathing
- Blurred vision
- Eye soreness
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Daytime fatigue
- Muscle aches
- Chest pains
- Elevated blood pressure
- Weight changes (gain or loss)
- Skin rashes or itchiness
- Changes to your menstrual cycle
In addition to impacting your physical and psychological health, stress may also lead to certain behavioral changes, including these:
- Difficulty making decisions
- Difficulty remembering things
- Snapping at others
- Biting your nails
- Picking at or itching your skin
- Grinding your teeth
- Clenching your jaw
- Sexual dysfunction (loss of interest in sex, inability to enjoy sex, etc.)
- Eating too much or too little
- Increase in smoking, recreational drug use, or alcohol consumption
- Restlessness/inability to sit still
- Crying or feeling tearful
- Spending or shopping too much
- Over or under-exercising
- Withdrawing from friends and loved ones
How Stress Affects Physical Health
We’ve established that stress is common among CEOs and other C-suite executives and that it can manifest in a variety of ways. Stress starts in the brain, but it affects a wide range of bodily systems. Here are some specific ways that it might impact you and your physical health:
Stress and the Respiratory System
When you feel stressed, your respiratory system is one of the first bodily systems to be affected. The respiratory system includes the lungs, airways, and blood vessels.
Think about the last time you went through something stressful. There’s a good chance your breathing started to become harder and faster.
This is a natural stress response. Your brain is telling you to breathe harder and faster so you can distribute blood and oxygen throughout your body as quickly as possible.
It’s not a big deal (for most people) to breathe this way for a short period. When you’re frequently breathing fast and hard, though, you could start hyperventilating. This is a common issue for those who are anxiety-prone or struggle with panic attacks.
Even if you’re not anxiety- or panic attack-prone, shallow breathing can still be problematic.
Over time, this type of breathing can cause or worsen physical issues like chronic back and neck pain, brain fog, and trouble sleeping. None of these are ideal when you’re trying to be a productive executive and run your company as effectively as possible.
Stress and Immune System
Chronic stress is not good for the immune system, either.
The stress hormone, cortisol, suppresses the immune system. This, in turn, makes you more susceptible to infections, as well as chronic inflammatory conditions like autoimmune diseases.
If you struggle with ongoing stress as an executive or business leader, you might find that you get sick more frequently than your peers. You might also take longer to recover when you get sick.
As a C-suite executive, you probably don’t like taking time off work because you’re feeling sick. This might even cause you more stress because you’re worried about how the company is doing in your absence.
The paradox is that constantly stressing about your business is bad for your immune system. If your immune system is regularly suppressed because of elevated cortisol, you’ll increase the likelihood that you’ll get sick.
Stress and the Musculoskeletal System
The musculoskeletal system is also affected by chronic stress. When you experience a stressful event, your muscles tense up.
Similar to an increased breathing rate, muscle tension is a natural stress response. Your body is protecting itself from potential pain or injury.
If your muscles seem to never de-tense, though, problems will start to pop up. You might be more prone to frequent aches and pains, for example. This could include neck, back, and shoulder pain, as well as chronic headaches or migraines.
No ergonomic office chair is good enough to combat the physical effects of long-term stress.
Eventually, the chronic pain brought on by chronic stress will catch up with you, and you’ll have a hard time feeling comfortable while you work. Being in constant pain is not ideal when you’re trying to make deals, plan for your business, and keep everything running smoothly.
Stress and the Cardiovascular System
One of the first signs you might notice when you’re feeling stressed is an elevated heart rate. This occurs because your hypothalamus has signaled the release of cortisol, which in turn signals an increased heart rate to pump blood throughout the body more efficiently.
Over time, if your heart rate is elevated too often, you may face an increased risk of certain cardiovascular issues. This is the case because chronic stress can lead to blood vessel and artery damage.
Damage to these key systems can increase your chances of developing hypertension (high blood pressure). You may also be more prone to experiencing a heart attack, stroke, or even heart failure.
It’s worth noting, too, that hypertension and other cardiovascular issues can also increase your risk of developing other health issues. For example, hypertension is linked to conditions like kidney disease, vision loss, and sexual dysfunction.
Stress and the Endocrine System
The endocrine system includes a variety of glands and organs throughout the body — including the hypothalamus. It uses several different hormones to control metabolism, energy, reproduction, growth, and your body’s response to injuries, stress, and mood changes.
When you struggle with chronic stress, you may experience hormonal disruptions that can cause serious illnesses like diabetes.
How does this happen?
After cortisol and adrenaline are released, blood sugar is produced by the liver to ensure you have enough energy to deal with the stressful event.
Healthy people can reabsorb excess blood sugar with the help of the hormone insulin after the stressful event ends. For some people, though, who are insulin resistant, blood sugar remains elevated — especially if they’re dealing with chronic stress.
Over time, this can lead to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a chronic health condition that requires rigorous management and can create more stress.
Stress and the Gastrointestinal System
Have you ever had a stomachache or cramps when you were feeling stressed? That’s because stress has a significant impact on your gastrointestinal system.
If you’re chronically stressed, you might be more prone to issues like heartburn and acid reflux. This occurs because stress may temporarily suppress appetite. It slows the digestion process and reallocates resources to other areas of your body — such as those that will be more beneficial in fighting off a stressor.
When your digestion slows, food sits in your stomach longer. As a result, your stomach acid has more time to build up. This increased build, in turn, can cause heartburn or reflux issues.
Slowed digestion due to stress can also cause other digestive issues. For example, you might have stomach pain, bloating, or nausea. You may experience constipation or diarrhea as well.
Stress and the Reproductive System
The male and female reproductive systems can both be affected by high levels of stress.
People who are chronically stressed typically have less of an interest in sexual activity. Their fertility rate also decreases.
One reason for this is that stress reduces the levels of a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) in the brain. It also boosts the production of a hormone that suppresses GnRH.
If you’ve been struggling to conceive, chronic stress might be part of the problem. This is especially true if stress is causing other physical health issues. For example, those with diabetes may have a harder time conceiving.
How Stress Affects Mental Health
Chronic stress can also, understandably, contribute to poor mental health. The following are some examples of how your mental health might suffer as a result of the stress you experience as a CEO or another type of executive:
Stress and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety are related, but they’re not the same. Here are some key differences between the two:
- Stress is caused by an external force (a looming deadline, a production issue at your business, etc.)
- Anxiety is internal; it persists even in the absence of stressful events
- Anxiety is fear-based; it involves persistent worry that something bad will happen
Even though they are different conditions, stress and anxiety share a lot of the same symptoms. That’s part of the reason why people tend to confuse them.
When someone faces ongoing, chronic stress, they may notice that the symptoms of their anxiety disorder get worse. They might feel fearful more often, for example, or they might find themselves engaging in coping mechanisms like biting their nails or fidgeting, to try and self-soothe.
Stress and Depression
In addition to causing or worsening anxiety symptoms, stress can also contribute to depression.
Think about all the different systems of the body that are affected by stress. From the respiratory system to the reproductive system, all kinds of organs and systems are impacted. Their ability to function is also impaired.
When your body is not functioning optimally, you may be more prone to depression. You might feel sad, angry, or hopeless, or you might isolate yourself from friends and loved ones because you’re so overwhelmed.
It’s important to note that the inverse is also possible. If you’re depressed, you might be more prone to stress. This is especially true for those who tend to isolate themselves. Isolation and loneliness can lead to an increase in your perceived stress level, which may exacerbate various stress-related symptoms.
Stress and Substance Abuse
There’s also a strong link between stress and substance abuse.
It’s not uncommon, especially in the executive world, to turn to substances like alcohol, tobacco, or recreational drugs to cope with stress and difficult emotions.
At first, these substances might provide relief and help you feel more in control. Over time, though, they’ll likely start to control you.
You might find that you need more and more of a particular substance to feel the same effects you felt previously. You could also start to experience withdrawal symptoms if you go too long without them.
Some examples of withdrawal symptoms include:
- Moods wings
- Aches and pains
- Hot and cold flashes
As you can see, there are similarities between some of these symptoms and the symptoms of stress. That shows how long-term substance abuse could actually be worsening your stress and getting in the way of you feeling better.
How to Reduce Work Stress
To avoid the negative outcomes of stress on the health of your C-suite, you need to look for ways to reduce stress at work. Here are some practices you can start implementing today:
A good starting point is to figure out what issues, specifically, stress you out. Perhaps you don’t worry about giving presentations but you feel a lot of stress when you have to give employees feedback during one-on-one meetings.
Keeping a journal is an easy way to start identifying your stress symptoms and figuring out which scenarios trigger these symptoms.
Once you do this for a couple of days or weeks, you’ll have a better idea of what makes your stress worse. Then, you can start figuring out coping mechanisms to help you deal with stress when you are hit with one of these triggers.
Find Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Speaking of coping mechanisms, it’s important to identify healthy ones that allow you to lower your stress levels and regulate your mind and body without causing additional harm.
Consuming alcohol is generally not considered a healthy coping mechanism, especially if you do it consistently. It might feel good in the short term, but it can have serious consequences in the long term.
Instead of relying on alcohol or other harmful coping mechanisms, you’ll need to find other ways to handle stress. Perhaps you can do some breathing exercises before you sit down for a meeting, or maybe you can write about your fears and feelings in a journal for a few minutes.
It’s best if you have multiple coping mechanisms you can turn to.
Nothing works all the time, regardless of how effective you’ve found it in the past. If you have a few different options to choose from, though, you can try out multiple practices to find something that works in this particular situation.
Setting boundaries is one of the hardest — but also most important — things for C-suite executives to get comfortable doing.
You might want to do it all and be there for everyone at your company, as well as your customers or clients, but you can’t — at least not long-term.
Setting boundaries makes it easier for you to show up for your team and be a good leader. It also makes it easier for you to draw lines between your work and personal life, which helps you to have better relationships with family, friends, and loved ones.
Here are some examples of setting boundaries as an executive:
- Establishing clear office hours so people know when you are and aren’t available
- Use an email autoresponder so you don’t feel obligated to respond to messages during evenings or on weekends
- Blocking off 30 minutes every day to have lunch uninterrupted
Remember, boundaries are not selfish. They create more balance in your life and make it easier for you to focus and stay productive.
If you’re not sure which boundaries you need to set, think about your priorities.
What is most important to you as a CEO, CFO, CMO, etc.? Where is your attention needed the most? How can you bring the most value to the company?
When you find the answers to these questions, it’s easier to identify what tasks and assignments you, specifically, need to make time for each day. Then, you can start drawing boundaries to ensure you have time for them.
In addition to thinking about your work-related priorities, think about priorities in your personal life, such as your physical and mental health. When you’ve established these priorities, you’ll also find that it’s easier to set boundaries like having 30 minutes to eat lunch uninterrupted or blocking off an hour in the morning to exercise.
Part of setting healthy boundaries is realizing that you can’t do everything — and accepting that you don’t have to.
You might be the CEO or another executive of a major company, but that doesn’t mean you’re a robot. It also doesn’t mean you’re the only competent person on your team.
Chances are you have plenty of lower-level employees who would love to take on more responsibilities at work or have a chance to prove themselves. When you’re setting priorities for the day or week, think about which tasks you can delegate to these team members.
Take some items off your to-do list and trust other employees to handle them. You might be amazed to find that they’re much more capable than you originally thought.
Nobody can be “on” all the time. If you never set aside time to rest and recharge, your body will never have a chance to regulate itself after going through a stressful situation.
Make sure you’re regularly taking time to decompress. This might mean scheduling a vacation, turning off email notifications over the weekend, or not looking at your phone in the evenings when you get home from work.
Don’t forget that taking breaks does not make you lazy or unproductive. In fact, the opposite is often true.
If you don’t take breaks and give your brain and body a rest, you’ll be more likely to burn out. This affects your productivity and makes it harder for you to do your job well.
Take Care of Your Body
Taking care of your physical health is a must if you want to manage stress effectively.
Those who take care of their bodies are generally more resilient than those who do not. It’s easier for them to bounce back from stressful situations, and they may be less likely to succumb to the effects of chronic stress.
How can you take care of your body? Here are some suggestions:
- Get regular physicals and preventative screenings
- Exercise regularly
- Eat a healthy, whole foods-based diet
- Get at least 7 hours of sleep per night
- Limit consumption of alcohol and other drugs (or avoid them altogether)
- Spend time outside each day
You don’t need to invest in fancy gadgets or expensive programs to improve your physical health. Simple steps like these can add up and lead to positive results.
Take Care of Your Mind
Make sure you’re also taking care of your mind, too. This might include meditating regularly, practicing breathing exercises, or doing yoga.
These kinds of practices make it easier for you to regulate your nervous system and stay calm, even during stressful or difficult situations. They’re often difficult for highly motivated, go-getter types (i.e., most CEOs and other executives).
At first, you might struggle to sit still and focus on your breath or move slowly through a yoga flow. As is the case with anything, though, it gets easier the more consistently you do it.
Practice is powerful in all areas of your life, including those related to mindfulness.
Seek Professional Support
There’s no shame in seeking help from a professional, such as a therapist or counselor.
Working with a professional is one of the best and most efficient ways to get in front of the issue and prevent it from escalating. This is especially true if you feel that the effects of stress are hurting your ability to be productive or do your job well, or if you think they’re impacting your health.
Many health insurance policies include mental health coverage, so check and see if this is the case for your company’s plan. If not, you might want to think about including it as an option. It will make your life easier, and your employees will likely appreciate having access to mental health care as well.
Invest in Executive Concierge Medicine
Speaking of health insurance, you might also want to think about investing in executive concierge medicine services for yourself and your fellow executives.
Concierge medicine is an excellent add-on to your existing healthcare plan.
When you pay a flat fee for concierge services, you get instant access to a healthcare professional at all hours — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. They work with your busy schedule and make it easier for you to prioritize your physical and mental health.
Many concierge medicine practices also offer bonus services that other healthcare practitioners do not. This might include mental health resources or nutrition counseling. You may gain access to hormone therapy and medical aesthetic treatments as well.
Combat Stress to Improve the Health of Your C-Suite
Chronic, uncontrolled stress can wreak havoc on members of your company’s C-suite, specifically when it comes to their physical and mental health.
When your C-suite is struggling, your whole business is at risk. If you haven’t been making stress management at work a priority, now is the perfect time to start.
Follow the steps outlined in this guide so you can start making better choices for yourself, your C-suite, and your company.