Executive stress: leaders under pressure

21 September 2015 -


Company leaders face a multitude of challenges and pressures, but with a public persona to maintain for the benefit of the company and themselves, many feel unable to speak out about the stresses of executive life

Jermaine Haughton

Under constant pressure to impress investors, employees, customers, the media and even themselves, the intense pressures and responsibilities that come with being the company boss are often forgotten; but the consequences cannot be ignored.

Another reminder of the effects of executive stress occurred last week when Harald Krueger, the new CEO of German motor giant BMW, collapsed while presenting the company’s new vehicle line-up at the Frankfurt Auto Show.

Following the advice of a doctor, Krueger, who was appointed BMW’s Chairman of the Board of Management in May this year, later cancelled his appointments for the rest of the day, and rested.

Since the incident, reports have emerged suggesting that the 49-year-old had been feeling ill before entering the stage but decided to carry out his presenting duties anyway.

In his first few months on the job, and at a home motor show with the world’s media watching, the opportunity to display his leadership and stamp his authority on the industry may have been too big to miss; forcing him to carry on regardless.

While the exact state of Krueger’s health has not been publicly revealed, onlookers have begun to ask questions of whether the German engineer was placing himself under too much stress.

And Krueger is by no means the only high-level executive to suffer from the stresses of leading a company in the public eye.

In October 2013, Sir Hector Sants resigned as head of compliance at Barclays, having been diagnosed with exhaustion and stress. And in 2011, António Horta-Osório, chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group, took six weeks off to recover from crippling insomnia.

After spending eight days in the Priory to sleep, Horta-Osorio said: “'With hindsight, I probably threw myself in too much. Focused too much, with too much intensity and I should have dealt with it differently.

“[Now] I will have a balanced lifestyle. This is not a matter of working hours, but priorities.”

But despite Horta-Osorio’s openness following his recovery and change in working patterns, stress remains a taboo subject for executives. There is a prevailing perception with many that admitting to suffering from stress is a show of weakness that could possibly threaten their position at the top.

It is still almost unheard of for directors or boards to link episodes of chief executive fatigue to stress. Apart from feeling culpable for the stresses placed on the men and women they placed in charge, public disclosure of leaders suffering from depression is unlikely to receive positive reactions from the stock market.

When oil and gas CEO Philip J. Burguieres finally sought help for depression, which he had suffered from for more than a decade, his company Weatherford Industries saw its stock plummet by more than 10%.

Therefore, while new bosses such as Krueger may just need greater support in their role to stop them running themselves into the ground in an effort to meet expectations, there is seemingly a much wider issue in the C-Suite’s across the world.

The taboo of mental health in the workplace needs to be removed, and stressed executives should feel free to talk about their issues and seek the help they need.

Powered by Professional Manager