Business Leaders, This Crisis Is Probably Aging You an Extra 1.5 Years

Perhaps in the midst of all that’s gone wrong this year, your life has been made a little brighter by the #2020challenge meme. The idea is perfectly captured by Reese Witherspoon’s much-shared entry where she uses screen shots from her movies to illustrate her decline as the year has worn on. 

Lots of other celebrities took up the challenge too. I particularly like Oprah’s descent from shouting optimism to gray haired desperation and Leonardo Dicaprio’s transformation from Titanic youth to Revenant gristle. 

Where am I going with this on a site for business owners? These memes are entertaining, but according to a new study they’re also accurate. Crises really do age us more quickly, especially if you’re in a position of authority. 

According to a new discussion paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research, being a CEO in a time of crisis ages you an extra one and a half years. 

This crisis really is giving you more gray hairs. 

The study, co-authored by researchers Mark Borgschulte, Marius Guenzel, Canyao Liu, and Ulrike Malmendier, and recently highlighted by Quartz’s Sarah Todd, took several approaches to quantify what leading through hard times does to those at the top of companies. 

First, they crunched data on 1,605 CEOs who led large companies between 1975 and 1991. By looking at mortality data and comparing it with information on which CEOs experienced major economic downturns in their industries during their tenure, the researchers determined that leading through a crisis aged a CEO the equivalent of 1.4 extra years. 

But it wasn’t just health and economic data that showed the cost of leading during a crisis. Photographs did too. The team fed 3,000 photos of CEOs into a machine learning program that estimated their age and then compared their apparent age to their real age. It turns out the Great Recession caused plenty of gray hairs. If a leader’s company experienced a severe shock in 2008, they gained an extra year of apparent age, according to the computer. 

This is just a discussion paper and so hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, but it’s not too difficult to believe the researchers’ conclusions.

As Todd notes, “given what scientists already know about how chronic stress appears to damage our telomeres–the part of the human chromosome that, when diminished, accelerates the aging process–it’s no surprise that being the boss can take a toll on a person’s health.” 

What should you do about it?

That’s not the happiest of news for entrepreneurs struggling to keep their companies afloat during the current crisis. But perhaps these sobering findings are a helpful reminder of just how physically damaging stress can be and a nudge to prioritize activities that can help you manage it. Science has documented plenty, including: 

2020 memes are funny, but crisis stress is no joke. The sad truth is leaving your stress unchecked really does age you and could even shave more than a year off your life. Maybe that will help you find the motivation to take a walk, talk to a loved one, or just give yourself a bit of a break this year. 

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