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3 ways burnout can kill CEOs’ performance

Posted: 19th March 2019

Over the years, literature about stress has been focusing mainly on employees and very little on chief executive officers (CEOs). In spite of the little research in this area, work-related stress and burnout is increasing in CEOs in large multinational companies as reported in the mass media.

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 the list goes on and on.

In the last 20 years, work-related stress has increased by 10 percent with a subsequent increase of costs for companies that are extremely high. Work-related stress causes serious consequences in the health of employees and financial costs to the organization. The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that in 2016/17 40% of all work-related ill health cases were caused by stress, depression or anxiety. Undoubtedly this is a worrying situation not only for the health of employees but also for costs to organizations, which lost £33.4 — £43.0 billion in 2017 alone.

As noted above, very little has been researched about chief executive officers’ burnout in the workplace. Since presidents play a key role in an organization’s performance and significantly shape the form and destiny of their organizations, it’s very important to put more attention on work-related stress and its negative consequences on these senior management positions.

A Swedish study shows, the higher the level of burnout in CEOs, the worse the organization’s performance. Indeed, when CEOs experience burnout reduce their active participation and organizational commitment, this in turn decreases the quality of their performance.

There are three specific factors which make these job roles highly exposed to burnout.

  1. Dysfunctional organizational structure

The climate of the organization where these people work, could potentially increase their emotional exhaustion, for example, role conflict and ambiguity.  Also, a board of directors narrow-minded and non-supportive focused on short-term goals, inappropriate organizational restructuring and consequently having less resources to meet those significant demands from investors all contribute significantly to the stress at the CEO level. Uncertainty of working in a state of constant change could also increase emotional exhaustion.

  1. Unfit personal characteristics

There are also personal characteristics that could cause job burnout, for example, age and the enterprising personality. Frequently the older CEOs are less stressed out than the younger ones and they can also prevent stress when they are free to make their own decisions to solve problems or achieve the goals.

  1. Pressure from the outside environment

Untrammelled competition, high demands from stakeholders, uncertainty in the global economy, and perceived environmental hostility all contribute to the stress level.

Burnout is 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.


Marta Regina




Business Comment

Business Comment is the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce’s bi-monthly magazine. It provides insight on Edinburgh’s vibrant business community, with features on the city’s key sectors, interviews with leading figures and news on new business developments in the capital.
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