Mitigating the Stress of Success

Carl B. Forkner, Ph.D.


What would it be like if you could rise to an executive position in your organization and be able to function at your optimum level without the additional stress that leadership often brings? The workplace is a source of both demands and pressures that cause stress. In most cases, executive positions are synonymous with busy schedules, meetings, incident management, and additional stress. But as one may hear in advertising, relief is possible.

The Executive Environment

Executive health can be a force multiplier that leads executives to world-class performance across any number of business competencies. Often leading amidst an environment of chaos and change, CEOs and other executives focus on decisions that affect organizational success, often resulting in undesired consequences for personal health. As illustrated in figure 1, executive health incorporates four key dimensions (Quick, Cooper, Gavin, & Quick, 2008).

Figure 1. An executive health model.

Executives find themselves at risk because of two competing forces acting upon them. The first of these forces is competitive pressure—a variable that is both intense and often unpredictable. The second force is job insecurity—as competitive pressures increase, so does the perceived level of performance required to obtain those objectives, with failure potentially resulting in job loss. As unexpected change occurs, requiring shifted priorities and methods, this pressure to perform—and perceived risk of job loss—may increase.

Unlike the health risks associated with physical conflict, executives face intense psychological risks. Two important external stressors influencing executive health are organizational competition and conflict as a result of that competition. Competition and conflict affect executive health in two critical areas. First, competition and pressure may invoke the fight-or-flight response, resulting in either decreased productivity or decoupling from necessary tasks. Sustained, unmitigated exposure to the stressors of competition and conflict has long-term effects, including depression and anxiety. It may also have real physical effects, such as elevated blood pressure, muscle tension, and a suppressed immune system.

Equally as adverse as long-term health issues, executives also face social isolation, being excluded by their position from social and regular professional interaction with much of the organization. The important impact of this effect is that it tends to be chronic rather than acute, often resulting in a feeling of overwhelming loss of psychological connection and reduced overall quality of life—even feelings of desperation that could be a precursor to suicidal thoughts or actions.

Executive Health

A major stressor for executives is work overload. This is exacerbated by the 24/7 accessibility that modern communications provide. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law (Hallowell, 2005), work overload sets conditions for underperformance, even with highly intelligent executives. However, in addition to performance, Yerkes-Dodson also manifests in health implications. This is known as the workload-performance hypothesis (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Workload-performance hypothesis. Adapted from Quick et al. (2008)

Physical Health

Physical health is a necessary component of executive health. One of the greatest risks for executives is cardiovascular disease. Physical well-being reduces the risk of heart attacks and other medical conditions that increase the health risks for executives (C. Murray & Lopez, 1994). Physical health is a foundation with which psychological, spiritual, and ethical well-being may be supported (Neck & Cooper, 2000).

Psychological Health

Psychological health affects executive decision-making ability. Making good decisions requires an ability to evaluate a situation, consider strategic needs and interests within a context of reality, and acting decisively. For this to occur, executives must be able to process information cognitively and provide clear and accurate interpretations in decision-making (Cannon-Bowers & Salas, 1998). Therefore, one may conclude that high levels of psychological well-being among executives enhances decision-making, whereas poor psychological well-being diminishes decision-making and may put an organization at risk.

Executives also need psychological well-being in order to make and sustain interpersonal relationships and support. This support, in turn, becomes an important aspect of well-being. A strong network of social support enhances positive health and decreases levels of illness (House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988). Those peers and others with whom an executive has open and honest communication provide an essential support for optimizing emotional health.

Spiritual Health

A much-overlooked dimension of executive health, spiritual health refers to there being a greater purpose in life than one’s current tasks. Spirituality involves the executive taking a broader view of their personal life, going beyond the fundamentals of the organization, and using their position to enhance the lives of the organization’s members and the community. An example of this principle was Andrew Carnegie who, in 1889, stated that wealth “could be beneficial, provided the amasser of wealth regarded himself as but a steward responsible to return fortune to the society from which it came” (Nasaw, 2006).

Ethical Health

Completing the foundations of executive health, ethical character is “who you are when no one is watching” (S. Murray, 1998). Character is as essential as psychological health to executive decision-making, especially in the face of the most difficult choices. It is the ethical character of executives that provides for good decisions in the short-term that support the long-term success of the organization.

Neuroscience and Executive Health

Each employee’s ability to perform at their optimum levels of both mental and physical health is critical to organizational success. The key to brain performance is neuroplasticity; that is, if the brain was not able to be molded and balanced to optimize performance, brain performance would not be a viable process. Brain performance uses neuroscience to determine the needs for balancing the brain (Hassed, 2008).

Neuroscience technologies provide a non-pharmaceutical, non-invasive solution that results in positive effects on brain performance. Use of a neuroscience solution may result in improvements across all four foundational precepts of executive performance. Using brain mapping and brain entrainment, neuroscience may have a positive effect on enhanced executive functioning, better stress resilience, and improvement in overall quality of life.

Harnessing the power of advanced computer technology serves to help the brain to “heal itself” or rebalance. Having the brain in a balanced state leads to a better quality of life, allowing us to act in a more deliberate manner, take care of our bodies through proper nourishment, balance emotional responses, and increase realization of potential through enhanced performance. Using neuroscience and biosignaling provides a pathway to engage this advanced computer technology with the brain and body.


For many conditions that affect productivity, balancing the brain to optimize neurophysiological well-being is important to mitigate—or eliminate—detractors. The brain is our body’s CPU, controlling our nervous system using chemicals called neurotransmitters that allow the different areas of the brain to communicate. Neurotransmitters communicate within a healthy brain to develop positive neuroplastic pathways. Current knowledge suggests that the adult brain is dynamic, changing based on both internal and external influences. This phenomenon of remodeling the brain is referred to as neuroplasticity, which changes can be either adaptive or maladaptive (Kays, Hurley, & Taber, 2012).

Positive neuroplasticity is the result of experience, exposure, and practices creating neuronal connections that influence positive resilient positive psychological and physiological functioning. Negative neuroplasticity occurs when the brain is remodeled by traumatic experience, exposure, or practices that create maladaptive results, such as sleep disorders, hypervigilance, and substance dependencies. Trauma and chronic stress may result in the brain being “stuck.”

Physical and Psychological Health

Physical health may be enhanced by improved brain performance. In a broad study of 10 health conditions, data on the total cost of health and productivity losses examined the relationship of presenteeism compared to absenteeism. Based on impairment and estimates for prevalence of conditions, hypertension was the highest detractor for productivity, followed by heart disease, and mental illness (including depression) (Goetzel et al., 2004).

Stress is a major cause of illness. We all suffer from stress and anxiety at some level now and then, which manifests both physiologically and psychologically (Jewell, 2012). Stress-related disorders (including PTSD) cost the nation more than $42 billion per year. In addition, approximately 43% of these people are also depressed or have alcohol or substance abuse problems. Additional consequences can include absenteeism, Worker’s Compensation claims, litigation, grievances, accidents, errors of judgment and action, conflict and interpersonal problems, violence, customer service problems, resistance to change, no time to do it right, and loss of intellectual capital (Kalia, 2002).

Psychological well-being for executives is found in living intensely, being passionate, and experiencing the full range of human emotions while at the same time demonstrating personal responsibility and self-control. While their work is important to them, their lives are balanced with family, play, and other non-work activities (Quick et al., 2008). Each employee’s ability to perform at their optimum levels of both mental and physical health is critical to organizational success.

The results of a 2018-2019 study at Charles Schwab underscores the important role that neuroscience may play in the future. The assessment of executive functioning used the Comprehensive Executive Function Inventory – Adult (CEFI-A), which measures nine areas of executive functioning. Results on World Health Organization Quality of Life – Brief (WHOQOL-Bref) and PTSD Checklist – Civilian (PCL-C) assessments also showed significant results.

· 30% overall improvement to quality of life

· 17% overall improved executive functioning for increased work performance

· 73% improvement in stress resilience

Spiritual and Ethical Health

Spirituality has no single definition. In general, it is a highly individual and intensely personal issue (Jewell, 2012). However, a definition of spirituality was developed that encompasses the perspective of individuality, stating that:

Spirituality is a broadly inclusive, universal, timeless, and the ultimate source of meaning and purpose in life. It is not denominational and, in contrast to conventional religion, it is neither formal, structured, nor organized. Spirituality is a deep feeling of connectedness with everything, an inner peace and calm, and an inexhaustible source of faith and willpower that is important to every aspect of our lives. (Mitroff & Denton, 1999)

Spirituality allows executives to not only recognize this dimension in their personal lives, but also to bring this insight to the organization. As identified in the results of the Charles Schwab study, the neuroscience program results showed an overall 30% improvement in quality of life—including both workplace and personal environments. Also affecting positively spiritual health was the 73% reduction in the impacts of trauma, enabling calm, spiritual connection.

Examination of ethical character is essential to effective leadership and organizational functioning. Character is defined by what—or who—we are on the inside, as opposed to the outward definition of people by personality. In short,

Character is the degree to which an individual has the ability to act upon his or her values. It is the strength and conviction to stand your ground and make the morally right decision even when it is difficult. (Quick et al., 2008).

People of strong character consider the needs of all involved—of the organization, for example—and projects those needs into the future. Individuals of strong character make better decisions.

Neuroscience can provide brain entrainment that enables better ethical activity. As experienced in the Charles Schwab study, leaders gained overall significant improvement in emotion regulation (25%), flexibility (12%), inhibitory control (21%), initiation (15%), organization (19%), planning (13%), and self-monitoring (10%). These characteristics are in line with strong character, improved decision-making, and ethical leadership.