Being the Boss Is Hazardous to Your Health

In a January survey of 600 C-suite executives by the professional network Chief, 37% said avoiding burnout would be a personal challenge this year.
In a January survey of 600 C-suite executives by the professional network Chief, 37% said avoiding burnout would be a personal challenge this year.

Summary

Migraines, ulcers, panic attacks and even premature death can afflict CEOs. People want the top jobs anyway.

Maybe the job of CEO should come with a warning label.

Nineteen chief executives died in office last year, the most since 2010, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which tracks turnover at U.S. companies. The outplacement firm tallied a record 1,914 CEO exits in 2023, which Senior Vice President Andy Challenger partly attributes to the postpandemic burnout that many execs feel. In a January survey of 600 C-suite executives by the professional network Chief, 37% said avoiding burnout would be a personal challenge this year.

A candid help-wanted ad might go something like this: Company seeks visionary leader to take business to the next level. Incumbent will be paid handsomely but may have fewer years to enjoy earnings because the stress of the role can reduce life expectancy.

Such a disclaimer probably wouldn’t put off a lot of candidates anyway. JetBlue chief Robin Hayes will follow his doctor’s advice and step down in February for unspecified health reasons. “The extraordinary challenges and pressure of this job have taken their toll," he said.

Yet for every Hayes, there are many more bosses like Oscar Munoz.

Munoz rose to the top post at United Airlines in 2015 and suffered a heart attack 37 days later. He returned to full-time work two months after a heart transplant and led the company until 2020.

“I know a lot of people who are CEOs or are in the running to be CEOs, and there is not a single one that’s like, ‘Hmm, let me consider whether or not I want to take on the physical and mental stress of the role,’" Munoz, 65 years old, told me. “It’s what we’ve been working for all our lives."

In an age of performative work-life balance and washboard abs on business titans, a near-masochistic leadership drive persists. Current and former CEOs say the job has ever more land mines because many employees often expect them to comment on news events—from Israel’s war with Hamas to the latest Supreme Court ruling.

Say the wrong thing, and you could be marching in the pink-slip parade behind an Ivy League president.

And bosses are one viral social-media post away from being drawn into controversy. An ex-Cloudflare employee who filmed her own firing and shared it on TikTok recently thrust the software company’s CEO, Matthew Prince, into damage-control mode.

On a dangerous path

When bosses quip that their jobs are taking years off their lives, they might not be joking.

Ivan Menezes was a few weeks shy of retiring as CEO of alcohol maker Diageo when he died last June at age 63. The company said he was hospitalized for stomach ulcers and died after a brief illness. Notable CEOs who suffered fatal heart attacks on the job in the past 20 years include Jim Cantalupo of McDonald’s, Samuel “Skip" Ackerman of Panacos Pharmaceuticals, Jerald Fishman of Analog Devices and Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster. They ranged in age from 58 to 71.

A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2021 found that industrywide downturns reduce CEOs’ life expectancies by 1.5 years. Most of the more than 1,600 CEOs in the study lived into their 80s, longer than average for the general population but shorter, in some cases, than they might have lived with less stress.

Executives say their responsibilities can cause them to lose sleep, skip workouts and eat poorly.

Nikki Barua, the 49-year-old co-founder and CEO of the leadership-development firm Beyond Barriers, hit a wall in 2016 while leading a previous venture. She was prediabetic, suffering through ulcers and acid reflux, and dealing with frequent migraines.

“I’m not the kind of person who could reduce my ambition—that’s just not who I am—but I also knew that if I kept going the way I was going, I would die very young," she says.

Barua lost 70 pounds over the next 18 months through diet and exercise, and committed to taking regular time off to recharge. She got better at declining personal and professional requests that would stretch her too thin and now follows a strict daily calendar with every meeting, meal and deep-work session scheduled.

Female leaders are more prone to suffering silently, she adds, because women remain underrepresented in CEO ranks and feel they can’t afford to appear vulnerable.

The Zen masters

For Harry Kraemer, one key to being a healthy boss was The Boss. The former Baxter International chief says that when the occasional meeting cancellation won him a free hour, he would take the opportunity to hop in his convertible, crank Bruce Springsteen and hit the McDonald’s drive-through. (OK, it wasn’t a perfect health routine, but the mental break lowered his blood pressure more than the Big Mac raised it. Besides, he says, he ordered Diet Coke.)

Former Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly says he never experienced health complications while leading the company from 2012 to 2019. He gave priority to sleep, exercise and nutrition, he adds, flashing an Oura ring on his right hand that monitors his heart rate, blood oxygen and other biometrics.

Joly, who co-leads a Harvard Business School program for new chief executives, says he and fellow mentors devote a lengthy session to personal well-being.

“We tell them this is a marathon," he says. “Take care of your health—physically, mentally and spiritually—so you can sustain your leadership."

Leaving and returning…slowly

Matthew Cooper, 41, knew when he co-founded the financial-technology company EarnUp in 2014 that serving as its CEO would likely harm his health. He did it anyway.

“Work was a form of addiction," he says.

Anxiety, depression and panic attacks had dogged Cooper as he progressed from one intense environment to another: Princeton University to McKinsey to private equity. His dilemma—shared by many ambitious people—was that his greatest stressors were also the things that fulfilled him.

When negative self-talk veered to thoughts of suicide in 2020, Cooper stepped down and published an essay about his decision. He remained on the EarnUp board and offered occasional advice to the executive team but took a three-year break from day-to-day responsibilities. He returned last summer as president, which he describes as a part-time role focused on business partnerships and corporate culture.

Scaling back isn’t easy for people whose identities and careers are intertwined, he says. But Cooper reserves greater sympathy for rank-and-file workers who don’t have the luxury of taking career breaks or reducing hours when stress becomes unbearable.

“There are people that have agency to change and those who don’t," he says.

Write to Callum Borchers at callum.borchers@wsj.com

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