Job stress takes a heavy toll on CEO lifespans, study finds

Job stress takes a heavy toll on CEO lifespans, study finds Job stress takes a heavy toll on CEO lifespans, study finds

November 2, 20202 min read
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You can literally see the lines of stress appear on the face of James Donald, CEO of Starbucks, from 2005 to 2008. Before becoming CEO, he more or less looked his age of 50, with dark hair and just the hint of crow’s feet around his eyes. By the time he left after the financial crisis of 2007–2008, however, his hair was grey, and his eyes and forehead were deeply lined with wrinkles. According to machine-learning analysis, he looked more than five years older than his actual age.



“It’s very clear that living through this crisis led to significantly faster aging,” said Ulrike Malmendier, Berkeley Haas’ Edward J. and Mollie Arnold Professor of Finance. Photographic analysis of Donald and other CEOs living through the financial crash is just one way that Malmendier and colleagues have been able to show the very real effects of stress on lifespan in their new paper, “CEO Stress, Aging, and Death.”



“The health implications of stress are a very under-studied dimension for many jobs,” Malmendier said. “We were interested in seeing how these pressures and tensions at work can make your life more or less fulfilling.” Written as a discussion paper for Europe’s Centre for Economic Policy Research, the paper is co-authored by PhD candidate Marius Guenzel, MS 17, PhD 21, now an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School; Mark Borgschulte, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois; and Canyao Liu, a PhD candidate at Yale.

The study looked at various ways to test the effects of stress.


The researchers examined financial shocks to specific industries, comparing CEOs who went through industry turmoil to CEOs in other industries.


They found that stress contributed to knocking about two years off of life expectancy. The researchers used facial recognition software that employed machine learning to judge the relative ages of CEOs before and after the financial crisis of 2007–2008.


The idea was inspired, said Malmendier, by before-and-after pictures of President Obama, who came into office fresh-faced with a full head of short black hair and left eight years later looking haggard and gray.



After submitting more than 3,000 pictures of more than 450 recent CEOs, Malmendier and her colleagues found that the CEOs’ apparent ages increased on average by a little over a year for having gone through the crisis.





Ulrike Malmendier is the Edward J. and Mollie Arnold Professor of Finance at Berkeley Haas and Professor of Economics at UC Berkeley. She is an expert in the areas of behavioral economics/behavioral finance and how individuals make decision. Ulrike Malmendier is available to speak with media on this research.



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