How to tackle stress at the top despite its taboo?

11 January 2017

How to tackle stress at the top despite its taboo?

Suicide and burnout at the top level are increasing. Dr Caroline Rook examines in her research the taboo of executive stress, and why it should be addressed.


Suicide and burnout at the top level are increasing. News of fatigue of leaders at the top of their success appears with frightening frequency across professions – business executives and top chefs are all breaking under the pressure. Expectation of everyday top-performance can push some chefs and executives to depression and exhaustion and sometimes even suicide in the extremely competitive atmosphere they are working in, particularly as it is taboo to speak about stress.

The taboo of senior level stress
High profile examples such as Zurich Finanical’s CFO and Swisscom’s CEO (who committed suicide in 2013 allegedly because of unbearable work pressures) and Lloyds Bank’s CEO and Akzo Nobel’s CEO (who were diagnosed with severe fatigue in 2011 and 2012 respectively) show that life at the top is often characterised by extremely long work hours 7 days a week, 24/7 availability and the pressure to show constant top performance. This can have extreme results for the individual and their organisation. Shares of their respective organisations dropped significantly when CEO of Lloyds Banking Antonio Horta Osorio and CEO Ton Buechner were diagnosed with fatigue.

There is little sympathy for people who cannot cope: Sir Win Bischoff, for example, told the Financial Times that he would not lower his expectations for Horta Osório’s performance after he was diagnosed with severe fatigue: “... we are not going to mollycoddle him. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. But I believe António can stand the heat. I expect CEOs occasionally to be tired.”

Evaluating senior level stress
Due to the normalization and taboo of executive stress at the top level, evaluating leaders’ mental health is a very difficult challenge. Colleagues were perplexed about Horta-Osorio’s sudden collapse due to extreme fatigue and shocked about the sudden death of Violier, describing him as in control and relaxed.  Evidently, there is a need for a rigorous approach to evaluate senior executive stress that can look below the surface and determines dangerous stress levels. In our latest research - Stress in Executives: Discussing the 'Undiscussable' – we have developed a protocol that allows for a more realistic stress management approach by paying attention to psychological clues in every day life situations and conversations that signal irrational behaviour patterns that are caused by severe levels of stress. We developed an interview protocol, drawn from studies on stress, that we call the Stress APGAR. This protocol provides particularly executive coaches with a solid framework to evaluate stress in senior executives. It can be used to identify key areas of concern and to develop focus points for coaching relationships.

Dr Caroline Rook explores in her research how to enable sustainable high-performance leadership and healthy organisations. Here you can learn more about her research: /people/person/caroline-rook/