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October 24, 2023

Managerial stress accelerates aging and increases mortality among CEOs

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Work-related stress is known to be pervasive and even increasing in the US since at least the 1950s . It has been hard to understand these adverse developments, as workers’ feelings of “pain, tiredness, and sadness” at work have decreased. It also remains difficult to disentangle these developments from the role of financial constraints.
In our paper “CEO Stress, Aging, and Death,” we examine how stress impacts the health and lifespans of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of the largest companies in the United States. Although these CEOs sit at the top of the corporate hierarchy, earn massive incomes, and possess the financial resources to purchase virtually any health input, CEOs do not appear to be insulated from the physical demands of their job. The central role of CEOs in the corporation means their personal time and effort may impose a constraint on the firm’s performance, particularly during restructuring, downturns or other challenging times. 

We conduct two novel analyses. The first examines how CEOs serving around the time of the Great Recession visibly age in response to their industry’s downturn. The analysis relies on a visual machine-learning algorithm that scores images of CEOs’ faces over time based on their “apparent age,” which is effectively how old they appear to be. CEOs who were at the helm during the most dramatic industry downturns were found to have aged significantly faster than their peers. To put it in numbers, the "apparent age" of these CEOs increased by one year more than their less-exposed counterparts in the years following the Great Recession.

The second piece of evidence examines the mortality of CEOs serving the 1970s and 1980s in response to both industry downturns and changes in corporate governance. By meticulously linking Fortune 1000 CEOs from the 1970s and 1980s to birth and death records—often found through obituaries or searches—we find that the strains of guiding companies through industry downturns reduced CEO lifespans by over a year. Conversely, changes in corporate governance that protected CEOs from hostile takeovers and relaxed the scrutiny on them were found to increase their lifespans by around two years.

In sum, stress and the associated negative health effects are an important feature of the modern economy, even for high-earning workers. Although the average worker may experience the ups and downs of their firms more severely due to greater personal uncertainty and financial hardship, the CEO analysis is helpful in illustrating the strength of the health effects. They exist even when we minimize or eliminate many channels by which stress and changes in firm performance may affect the average worker, including access to health insurance and health inputs, as well as uncertainty associated with job loss and poverty. Our findings also indicate that CEOs themselves may be selected for a willingness to sacrifice their personal welfare for their firms’ performance. 

© Mark Borgschulte, Marius Guenzel, Canyao Liu and Ulrike Malmendier

Mark Borgschulte is Assistant Professor at University of Illinois and IZA
Marius Guenzel is Assistant Professor at Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
Canyao Liu is PhD Graduate at Yale University
Ulrike Malmendier is Professor at University of California Berkeley, and IZA Research Fellow

Please note:
We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.

Related IZA World of Labor content:
Efficient markets, managerial power, and CEO compensation by Michael L. Bognanno
Bosses matter: The effects of managers on workers’ performance by Kathryn L. Shaw
Mortality crisis in transition economies by Giovanni Andrea Cornia

Foto by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash