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The traits of an executive are very recognizable: confident, fearless and courageous. Executives are responsible for making tough decisions, steering organizations through difficult times, and demonstrating foresight and vision to deliver success.

The perception of an executive is that they are strong enough to manage and overcome stress, yet recent events would indicate some have unfortunately succumbed to it. Over the last several years, a handful of Fortune 500 companies have suffered the devastating loss of senior executives who took their own lives.

By understanding what stress looks like and adopting prevention and intervention initiatives that target executives, perhaps these tragic events can be avoided.

Executive Summary

When stress is unmanageable and prolonged, it can leave individuals feeling overwhelmed and exhausted and lead to poor physical health, anxiety, depression and even suicide. A focused approach to supporting executives in managing stress and building strong mental health can impact both business and personal success in the long term.

Everyone experiences some level of stress–from the stay-at-home mom to the high-level corporate executive. Increasingly, employees are feeling stressed by work-related pressures that can often be destructive to health, productivity and performance.

According to Aon Hewitt’s 2014 Consumer Health Mindset survey of more than 2,700 employees and their dependents, half reported feeling high stress on a regular basis, and another 33 percent indicated that their stress had increased over the past year. The research revealed that consumers’ primary sources of stress were related to financial concerns and work-related issues.

Even though employees are feeling increasingly stressed, some forms can be positive and help achieve goals. The Consumer Health Mindsetsurvey shows that one-third of employees report that their stress level positively impacted their personal or work life. However, long-term chronic stress and the inability to cope with ongoing and high levels of stress can have severe consequences.

When stress is unmanageable and prolonged, it can leave individuals feeling overwhelmed and exhausted and can result in poor physical health, cause anxiety, depression and, in some of the most critical cases, potentially result in suicide. Recent industry research shows that highly stressed people are 30 percent less likely to eat healthily, 25 percent less likely to exercise and 200 percent more likely to fail to achieve their goals in weight loss programs. These employees also get half as much sleep as people reporting low levels of stress, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2012 Stress in America survey.

Further, suicide rates among individuals in their prime working years (between the ages of 35 and 64 years) have increased by 28.4 percent from 1999 to 2010. In 2010, suicide among males was four times higher than among females and was the 10th leading cause of death for all ages (“Suicide Among Adults Aged 35-64 Years—United States, 1999-2010,” published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, May 3, 2013).

The increase in suicide rates and growing levels of stress suggest greater attention should be placed on identifying and addressing drivers of stress, approaches to alleviate and prevent unhealthy stress, and methods to recognize when someone is in distress. The challenge is that the lives of senior executives are enveloped in stress and characterized by the perceived need to be strong and not show signs of weakness. This environment makes it difficult to discern when an executive is in distress and also provides challenges for executives to reach out for support.

What Stress Looks Like for Executives

Many of the qualities inherent in corporate executives, such as confidence and assertiveness, seem to mask the outward appearance of stress. However, the demands of an executive’s day-to-day life can sometimes take a toll.

Long hours are an expectation of most executives, who often work 12 hours a day and on weekends. An executive’s work day is generally fast-paced and filled with numerous meetings, frequently resulting in critical decision-making that impacts their employees. They also make sacrifices in their personal lives that place enormous stress on relationships. At the same time, they have to balance multiple and sometimes competing goals that make them accountable to shareholders, CEOs and upper management.

Having a network of friends and colleagues with whom we can share our concerns, thoughts and experiences is critical to alleviating stress and maintaining strong mental health. However, due to the sensitive nature of the activities in which senior executives are involved and the decisions they need to make, it is often difficult—if not impossible—to have trusted relationships that can help lessen stressful situations.

Many executives do not have time or energy to build friendships outside the workplace, which can result in feelings of isolation and loneliness. According to RHR International’s January 2012 CEO Snapshot Survey, 50 percent of all CEOs report experiencing loneliness due to the level of intensity of their role and the scarcity of peers with whom they can confide.

Lack of downtime, social network and time to engage in stress-relieving activities, like exercise, can also place executives at high risk for adverse outcomes of stress. For executives, unmanageable levels of stress and risk for depression can manifest as difficulty relaxing, low energy, racing thoughts and insomnia.

Helping Executives Manage Stress

There are several actions employers can take to help leaders manage stress in the workplace:

• Create an environment where mental health is as important as physical health.Implement initiatives that reduce stigma and make it easy to discuss and obtain assistance for managing stress and more significant mental health concerns. This could occur in the form of awareness campaigns that highlight the importance of maintaining mental health, the effectiveness of mental health support and the availability of confidential resources. Ensuring that senior leadership and executives support and engage in this environment is critical.

• Highlight business practices that can alleviate stress. Ensure executives value and understand the importance of taking time off. Time off can simply be unplugging from email and phones for just a few hours a day. This time off can be a prime opportunity to engage in physical activity, which can be a key stress reliever.

Establishing a strong team of people who can be trusted to execute in the executive’s absence can be effective in alleviating stress and allowing the executive to take time off to re-energize. Having the infrastructure to support positive work initiatives will allow executives to be successful in modeling positive behavior and will signal the importance of engaging in these activities to all employees.

Additionally, engaging in activities that serve others, such as community service, can offer a release from daily stressors.

• Encourage and support the use of effective stress management techniques.While executives are often quite skilled in delegating and managing time, assisting them in building and employing these techniques can be crucial to managing stress levels. An effective but often overlooked method for managing stress is conducting an inventory of stress triggers. This approach allows the executive to identify triggers and to develop positive, focused responses to those triggers.

Other methods for managing stress include engaging in outdoor activities, hobbies or other activities that encourage the separation of work and personal time. Gaining greater traction recently is the use of meditation as a method for managing stress.

• Ensure easy and confidential access to mental health professionals. Employee assistance programs are an effective, confidential way for individuals to discuss their concerns with an objective third party. Employers may want to consider establishing a focused network of mental health professionals and clinicians who have experience working specifically with executives and understand their unique circumstances and challenges.

Executives can often be the strength of the corporation, but they also have breaking points that can impact their ability to effectively deal with company performance, maintain strong personal relationships and make critical decisions. A focused approach to supporting executives in managing stress and building strong mental health can impact both business and personal success in the long term.

Contributors

Kathleen Mahieu, Aon Hewitt

Kathleen Mahieu, MBA, MEd, is the Leader of Behavioral Health Consulting at Aon Hewitt.

Denise Heybrock, Aon Hewitt

Denise Heybrock, LCPC, is a Behavioral Health and Well-Being Specialist at Aon Hewitt.