CEO stress can reduce lifespan, increase aging, study shows

CEOs experiencing high stress from work and industry challenges may live 1.5 years less than their peers, according to a study.

Beyond the lifespan effects, the National Bureau of Economic Research Database found that CEOs who likely bore the brunt of stress from the Great Recession added an estimated year to their apparent age. The study used experimental machine-learning to analyze more than 3,000 photos of CEOs at different points in their tenure.

The results showed prolonged periods of stress have very real health consequences for workers and executives.

“Today’s interest is always around incentivizing people to put in effort and work hard,” said Marius Guenzel, who is a UPenn economist and researcher on the study. “On the flip side, what is the effect of people who are constantly working these intense work schedules.”

CEOs with lower job demands in industries insulated by market discipline and anti-takeover laws saw a 2 year gain in lifespan.

Researchers studied CEOs in particular because their wealth, access to quality healthcare and other incentives make it easier to isolate for financial hardships and income losses, common stress factors for today’s force. By removing these aspects of work-related stress, the study could look at the effect the practice of working in a demanding job has on health outcomes.

The study could home in on the effects of takeover laws and industry downturn on CEOs by collecting data from Forbes’ Executive Compensation Surveys from 1975 through 1991.

Guenzel said his team is the first to use their machine-learning technique in a quasi-experimental setting to look at apparent aging in photographs of people exposed to different levels of distress. Five photos were collected at the beginning of a CEO’s tenure and two other photos were added every four years. In total 463 CEOs on Fortune 500’s 2006 list had their pictures included, 96% of them were white. The resulting analysis found that CEOs exposed to more stress aged quicker and that stress’s effect on aging increased over longer periods of time. The technique could lead to a new way to assess worker strains in future research.

The study also shows stricter leadership, which is historically favored, is more likely to impose negative health costs. Guenzel said he hopes this encourages bosses to create more workspaces where the adverse effects of stress are legitimized, especially during the pandemic.

“When we started working on this we could have never predicted something like [COVID],” he said. “I hope with the pandemic and the realization that stress affects people there’s a shift of focus to how mental health can affect physical health and wellbeing.”


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