Bosses pay more heed to workers’ burnout

The increasing complexity of business following Covid has led to high levels of stress, anxiety and burnout among business leaders. 

Dr Robin Clark, medical director for Bupa Global and UK, discusses the findings of Bupa Global’s latest Executive Wellbeing Index and how this will impact healthcare in the coming months.

Economic turbulence, the pace of technological advances, globalisation and navigating the lingering shadow of a worldwide pandemic have all contributed to the complexity of the way the world does business in a post-Covid landscape.

The latest Executive Wellbeing Index from premium international health insurer Bupa Global gives us an insight into the impact of this on the minds of industry leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs around the world. 

It analysed research among more than 2,400 respondents across eight countries and regions, including the UK, US, France, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Hong Kong and Singapore.1

Global trends and local impacts

The pandemic, turbulence in financial markets and world events have served as a stark reminder that we live in an increasingly interconnected world. Some events are universal and disruption in one part of the world can often reverberate across others.

Despite some regional variations in the way the pandemic and world events have impacted executives globally, the data shows that this demographic has much in common. 

One of the stand-out findings of the Executive Wellbeing Index is the extent to which mental health challenges transcend geographic, socio-economic and cultural boundaries, with 89% of respondents reporting at least one symptom of poor mental health. Worryingly, this is up from 77% last year and 70% in 2020. 

The most commonly reported symptoms were disturbed sleep (19%), mood swings (18%) and burnout (17%).

For context, the World Health Organization estimates that, globally, one-in-eight people is living with a diagnosable mental health condition,2 and in the UK that number is thought to be one in six. 

This gap between diagnosed conditions and reported symptoms highlights the fact that mental well-being is a broad spectrum, and underlines the importance of looking out for signs that someone may be struggling.


Red flag

A worrying red flag highlighted by the survey is the increase in burnout. Managing through circumstances out of one’s control – a hallmark of the pandemic – is a recognised driver for burnout, particularly for senior leaders who are tasked with leading a business and making decisions that impact their employees.3

The persistence of sleep problems is also a concern. More than half (52%) of those surveyed reported getting less than seven hours at least twice a week and a quarter (27%) said this happens for more than half the week. 

Research shows that just five nights of partial sleep deprivation reduces our ability to assess data and risks, and many of these sleep-impaired individuals are making decisions which have huge financial and human impacts.4

That the vast majority of those surveyed have experienced some symptoms of mental ill-health is a salient reminder that anyone can experience these challenges and the danger of making assumptions based on outward appearances. 

On the plus side, a deeper dive into the data shows improvements across a number of symptoms of psychological distress.

 In the previous year, 34% of this key demographic reported sleep problems compared to 19% this year, 24% were experiencing mood swings compared to 18%, and 37% complained of fatigue — more than twice the number (16%) in the latest dataset.

This is good news as, despite the overall upwards trend, it suggests a significant fall in the number of business leaders experiencing multiple symptoms of poor mental health. 

The overall increase in those reporting at least one mental health symptom may also reflect greater openness and honesty in our conversations and reduces the stigma around mental health.

Promoting a proactive approach

Another of the positives we see from this high-achieving, highly motivated demographic is that they are also very pro-active when it comes to looking after their mental well-being. 

Almost all (97%) have taken steps to prevent or manage their psychological well-being in the past 12 months, with the most common self-help strategies being exercise (23%), spending more time in nature (21%) and talking to family and friends.

As we know well, physical exercise is hugely important for mental well-being. An American study based on data from 1.2m people showed that those who exercise regularly had fewer days of poor mental health than individuals with sedentary lifestyles.5

The fact that most have taken steps to support their mental wellbeing, primarily via lifestyle-based interventions, is also good news for mental health more broadly. 

Not only for these individuals personally, but also because this degree of awareness at boardroom level is likely to shape decisions, openness and support within the organisations they lead and positively impact their employees too.

Prioritising health and well-being

New ways of working introduced in response to the pandemic have led to long-term changes in the way we do business – which, in turn, has changed, perhaps forever, our approach to balancing home-life and work-life. 

There have been fundamental changes at a more personal level too, as many of us re-evaluated our lives and goals and recalibrated our priorities. 

As a result of what has been called ‘The Great Resignation’, it’s estimated that around 75.5m people globally quit their jobs last year – the equivalent of the entire population of Canada.6

Studies show that productivity declines when we work more than 50 hours a week. This is why it is essential that work-life balance is created from the top down, with leaders using the tools at their disposal to support their mental wellbeing, and role-modelling this for their people.7

Interestingly, although older executives are marginally more likely to be considering a significant career change – 55% of over-45s – this shift in outlook spans the generations. 

The Index found that 48% of executives under 34 were also considering a major change to their work life, such as moving to part-time hours, consultancy, freelance working, moving to another company or stopping working entirely.

Unpredictable landscape

Senior leaders under immense pressure are now weighing up whether their ways of working are sustainable for their long-term mental health. 

This has been exacerbated further by recent global events, increasing pressure on leaders to navigate an unpredictable economic landscape to meet their business targets, while also feeling greater responsibility to provide stability for their workforce. 

Our latest Index data shows that some organisations are already responding to this shift in expectations from their workforce. Globally, almost half (48%) say their company plans to improve employee benefits packages in the next 12 months. 

Wellness initiatives, which may have been seen as ‘soft benefits’ in the past, are now a high priority. When asked to rate what matters most to senior leaders, 31% said wellness packages such as health insurance and gym memberships.

Increasingly, it seems that companies are making substantial cuts to spending that is not considered essential, with 18% of board directors saying their organisations no longer offer corporate hospitality and two-in-five companies (41%) also intend to cut back on business travel.

However, the Index data suggests these cutbacks are part of a wider shift in priorities, as 14% of those surveyed said these savings are being redirected to support health and well-being initiatives for their people

Overall, 47% said their company plans to make employee mental health and well-being the organisation’s top priority in the coming year and a similar number (49%) would like to see this happen. 

Preventative health and support for healthy lifestyles are also a key focus, with 45% of those surveyed confirming their company plans to do more in the coming year.

As part of this, demand for private health insurance is high. Seven in ten (69%) of this demographic are considering paying for cover themselves in the coming 12 months. 

And their priorities in terms of what’s covered are regular health checks (26%), physical and mental support for their whole family (25%) and advice on preventing issues by maintaining good physical and mental health (25%).


The need for preventative care and mental health support at work has never been greater – at every level – if businesses are to retain the very best talent and steer the global economy back on track. 

And, naturally, executives are looking for organisations that value a healthy and happy workforce.

These findings suggest that there are huge numbers of people living with symptoms of poor mental health who have not crossed the threshold of distress that would lead to diagnosis. 

To prevent this reaching crisis point, both for the individuals and already stretched mental health services, it is essential that we – as well as employers – take early action. 

Where people present with any of these symptoms, we need to make sure they are signposted to support and coping strategies that can help ease this burden before it is too late.

It is encouraging that senior business leaders are so motivated to improve their mental health and well-being, despite the many challenges they face. 

As they make changes to improve their long-term mental health, this will influence company policies and benefit their employees. We need to find ways to support and encourage this pro-active behaviour change, as it is key to improving the health of the population. 

As clinicians, we need to demonstrate the quality and value that the private sector offers patients to encourage the continuation of the increased demand for private cover. 

And insurers need to deliver new and innovative products to help people take a pro-active and preventative approach to their health, with the aim of keeping them well rather than reacting when stress leads to illness.

1. The Bupa Global Executive Wellbeing Index 2022 analyses research conducted between 3 August and 7 September 2022 among 2,439 adults with £1m+ in annual salary and investable assets.
2. Mental disorders, World Health Organization, 8 June 2022.
3. Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry, World Psychiatry, June 2016.
4. Effects of Total and Partial Sleep Deprivation on Reflection Impulsivity and Risk-Taking in Deliberative Decision-Making, Nature and Science of Sleep, May 2020.
5. Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1.2 million individuals in the US between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study, Lancet Psychiatry, September 2018.
6. New Research on The Real Cause Of The Great Resignation,, January 2022.
7. The Productivity of Working Hours, The Institute for the Study of Labor, John Pencavel, April 2014.