When Leaders Get Seriously Ill

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Business culture promotes the image of executives as super humans. We must eradicate institutionalized burnout and promote the culture of wellness and renewal.

Remember when Steve Jobs announced that he was permanently stepping down as Apple’s CEO for health-related reasons? It was August 24, 2011, and the company’s stock tumbled by 5.1% in after-hours trading, a loss in value amounting to almost $10 billion. Similarly, Lloyds Bank CEO, Antonio Horta-Osorio and Akzo Nobel CEO, Ton Büchner, both of whom took a leave of absence due to fatigue and burnout, saw the share price of their companies fall, respectively, by 4.4% and 5.5%.

When leaders become ill, markets react — they don’t like the uncertainty created by a leadership vacuum. Investors may understand illness on a personal level, but they won’t place their bets on a company marked by turmoil in its executive ranks. Share price drop is not the only loss linked to illness at the highest level; there is also lower productivity and erosion of morale, not to mention the personal cost to the individual and his or her family.

Many people — when struck by a serious illness — might worry about loss of pay, continuity of employment, and (specifically in the US) loss of medical coverage or a high cost of coverage — in addition to worrying about their health, of course. What they don’t have to consider is the billions of dollars their employer might lose, or the company’s exposure to a hostile takeover.

That’s exactly what executives must take into account. It’s an enormous responsibility and it goes well beyond the leader and his or her loved ones.

In today’s global businesses and corporations, good health is taken for granted. The same holds true for top elected officials (recall the debate about the health of US presidential candidates).

Corporations and governments alike promote the image of executives as super humans. They expect them to look and act healthy, even when they are not. It begs a few questions:

  • How does this influence the way executives approach their own health and wellbeing?
  • Does it encourage them to place particular emphasis on illness prevention?
  • Or does it legitimize going past reasonable limits while missing — or ignoring — signs of an impending health crisis?

Executives — similar to emergency room doctors — are regularly exposed to extreme pressure and high job demands. That’s why they get paid the big bucks, right? While many leaders thrive on high-stakes challenges, visibility, and risk taking, the thrills of being an executive often go hand-in-hand with an unhealthy lifestyle and little time for renewal.

Work stress is not going away, whether you are a CEO or a high school teacher. Each of us has a responsibility to take good care of ourselves. But it’s also in the best interest of large businesses and organizations to protect, not exploit, the health of their leaders.

We must eradicate institutionalized burnout and promote the culture of wellness and renewal. It doesn’t rest with a single organization. It’s a societal norm that needs to be changed.

Many illnesses are preventable or treatable if addressed early, so let’s reward a culture of healthy behaviors. A two-week leave will not send anyone’s stock sliding, but it can help avert a business or personal crisis. Nobody benefits when a leader is a ticking health bomb.