sábado, 4 de junho de 2016

The lessons from the suicides at Zurich Insurance

The lessons from the suicides at Zurich Insurance
It is natural to believe that your life is charmed and to flounder when you find you are fallible
John Gapper
YESTERDAY by: John Gapper

Every suicide is intensely sad — a despairing act of self-harm that leaves a legacy of guilt and sorrow for the victim’s family, friends and colleagues. That of Martin Senn, chief executive of Zurich Insurance until last December, is doubly resonant because it follows the suicide of Pierre Wauthier, Zurich’s chief financial officer, three years ago.

Senn, who killed himself at his Klosters holiday home last Friday, is said to have struggled to adjust to being no longer the boss of a Swiss multinational. He agreed to step down after Zurich failed to acquire the UK insurer RSA last year, and faced problems in the US and China. The company is now restructuring and cutting costs.

My reaction to his death is influenced by having suffered an episode of depression a decade ago. “Suffered” is the correct word, as anyone who has been through the experience can testify. “Episode” is the term employed by psychiatrists, as if it forms part of a rather painful soap opera. Luckily, my pilot episode did not turn into a series.

It made me alert to the malaise, though. When I hear of senior executives resigning or taking a break from their work because they are experiencing “sleeplessness”, “burnout”, “exhaustion”, or some other corporate euphemism for anxiety and depression, I recall what it taught me.

One lesson is the common nature of mood disorder in the boardroom. It is tempting to view the Zurich Insurance suicides as a unique and alien tragedy, akin to the “virgin suicides” in the 1993 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides — the story of five sisters who kill themselves, narrated by a chorus of admirers.

But even the official estimates suggest that every board of directors is likely to contain at least one person with an experience of depression. In 2014, 7 per cent of US adults reported having a major episode in the past year; 16 per cent are diagnosed with depression at least once in their lifetimes.

This may be an underestimate for directors and executives, if anecdote is reliable. I know several who went through depression without admitting it, including a partner in a City of London firm and one government minister. Then there was a FTSE 100 chief executive who was charismatic at work but lay in a darkened room at home.

Therein lies a second lesson: rising to great heights in your career, as did Senn and Wauthier, may mean you are more vulnerable. Depression is not an elite disorder — it is widespread and many aspects of the lives of the less privileged and lower paid can precipitate mental illness. But exceptional achievement carries its own peculiar risks.

Workaholism is among them. Wauthier’s widow recalled that, “Usually he had seven hours’ sleep and the rest of the time it was BlackBerry in one hand, laptop in the other”, and that he was under heavy pressure. That is not unusual in a job like his, or at professional services firms that charge so much they are at clients’ beck and call.

One recent study of Norwegian employees found that the “workaholics”of the sample had higher levels of anxiety and depression. Thirty-four per cent of them met the medical criteria for anxiety, compared with 12 per cent of those who did not overwork.

Cause and effect are not clear — do you become anxious by overworking, or do anxious people overwork? Anxiety can be adaptive, as psychiatrists would phrase it, up to a point: it helps people to achieve professional success. But it also makes them subject to hazard.

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High-flyers risk the fate of Icarus, the original high-flyer of the Greek myth, whose wings came apart when he flew too close to the sun. Some attain middle age without facing serious setbacks in life — they studied at elite schools and universities and have flourished in professions. When they finally encounter failure, it is a terrible shock.

After such success, it is natural to believe your life is charmed, and to flounder when you abruptly discover that you are as fallible as everyone else. Enoch Powell, the British politician, observed that all political lives end in failure. That is equally true of business lives: most of those who reach the top of the professional pyramid as chief executive do not stay there long.

Some accept this but it triggers in others a biological reaction that causes depression. The distress is often temporary, though. A setback does not end a career; an episode need not become a series. Depression can be chronic but midlife crises are often one-offs.

More companies now recognise these truths and are better prepared to support employees in difficulty. The stigma has lessened although the number of those who choose not to speak up shows that it lingers. That worsens the pain and risks catastrophe.

“How is your mood?” psychiatrists tend to ask patients affected by depression. Bad then but good now, is my answer. This is why the Zurich Insurance suicides are so sad. What feels hopeless at one moment later fades into history. Life can recover and fulfilment return, if you stick around.

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