Suicide Among Execs: Coping with Stress in the C-Suite

The recent, unusual number of suicides by top executives reminds me of how important it is to talk about the dangers of severe stress in the workplace and some steps you can take to manage your own stress.

Just consider this (incomplete) list of media coverage:

  • On Tuesday Kate Spade, the founder of fashion line Kate Spade suicided.  She was  55.
  • At the end of May, the Wall Street Journal reported that Martin Senn, former CEO of Zurich Insurance Group AG, suicided. Senn was 59.
  • In 2013, Pierre Wauthier, CFO also of Zurich Insurance suicided just weeks after Carsten Schloter, CEO of another company, Swisscom, took his own life.In his suicide note, Mr. Wauthier blamed Zurich Insurance Group’s Chairman, Josef Ackermann, for creating an unbearably stressful work environment. Ackermann later resigned.

In one sense, suicide among high-powered executives shouldn’t be surprising. As the lines between personal and work life continue to shrink, the expectations and pressures we put on ourselves continue to grow. In another sense, it is all too easy to look past the deeply human vulnerabilities of ambitious and effective leaders, who have learned, while climbing the corporate ladder, to keep their personal feelings hidden away.

stressed executive

First, it is important to distinguish between clinical depression and severe stress.

While we all experience stress and anxiety from time to time, we do not all experience depression. Some people experience feelings of hopelessness and helplessness daily and for no obvious external reason. If someone consistently feels discouraged, sad, hopeless, unmotivated, or disinterested, they may be experiencing clinical depression. When such feelings last for more than two weeks at a time and interfere with daily activities, this is a very serious condition and needs to be treated by a mental health professional.

Don’t minimize severe stress.

Although we tend to think of clinical depression as more serious than stress and anxiety, it’s important to keep in mind that severe stress can be just as debilitating as depression. Chronic stress affects your health, causing physical symptoms ranging from headaches, high blood pressure, and chest pains to heart palpitations, skin rashes, and loss of sleep. It suppresses our talents and creativity as well as our capacity to get things done.

Signs of severe stress include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased alcohol or other substance abuse
  • Being easily angered
  • Preoccupation with problems and worry
  • Having low energy
  • Feeling numb or lack of interest in usually pleasurable activities

What are some ways to deal with severe stress?

The most important thing you can do when you are in a stressful situation is to reach out and connect with someone you trust and who cares for you. Social isolation is both the result of and contributes to severe stress. It can lead to the kind of desperation that results in taking the drastic action of self-harm or suicide. Spending time with other people and feeling their concern can help soothe the stress response. Their perception of you as a whole person and your life beyond the current situation can help you gain perspective and alleviate the immediate pain.

In addition, the following activities will help build resilience to deal with stress:

  • Keep a journal of positive events only, even if they were small. Note what you have accomplished at the end of the day, rather than what you were unable to do.
  • Exercise regularly. Even 30 minutes per day of gentle walking can help boost mood and reduce stress.
  • Schedule regular times for soothing your mind such as meditation or walking around outdoors. Make those times a priority.
  • Explore other relaxing activities (such as yoga, Tai Chi, or massage) at work and at home.

If you find that you are still having difficulty coping, seek help from a qualified mental health care provider. A good therapist or counselor should make you feel understood and more hopeful almost immediately. Don’t settle for less.

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