C-suite suicides: When exec life becomes a nightmare

September 10, 2013, 9:00 AM UTC
The late Swisscom CEO Carsten Schloter

FORTUNE — Swisscom CEO Carsten Schloter, 49, had trouble with being on call 24/7. Pierre Wauthier, 53, CFO at Zurich Insurance Group was in the middle of a horrendous conflict with his CEO.

Both men ended their problems by taking their own lives: Schloter in July, Wauthier last week. While it is almost impossible to draw general conclusions from something so personal and complex as a suicide, their deaths raise a question: Have working conditions in the C-suite become so intense that suicide appears to offer the only answer for some?

Statistics about senior executive suicides are scarce, if non-existent. “I don’t know of any data in the U.S.,” says Eric Caine, a suicide researcher at the University of Rochester. “There is a literature on suicide and occupation, but that is not specified to C-level executives. There is also very little anecdotal evidence. The reason is that people tend to hide these tragedies. Only the most prominent make it to the press.”

General suicide rates in the U.S. in 2010 are at 12.08 per 100,000 people, according to data from the American Association of Suicidology in Washington, D.C. The rate is on the rise, though: At the turn of the century, it was around 10.8 per 100,000. By comparison, suicide rates in Switzerland, where both Swisscom and Zurich Insurance are based, have actually gone down: from 17.2 per 100,000 in 2000 to 11.1 per 100,000 in 2010. In the EU as a whole, the rate has gone down as well from 11.8 per 100,000 people in 2000 to 10.2 in 2010, according to Eurostat.

Suicide within the C-suite almost seems counterintuitive. “As a class of people, top executives tend to have better mental health than those on the lower rungs of an organization,” says Caine. “They have more resources and less financial issues, more people to help them with the adversities in their lives, and their idiosyncrasies are often tied to their success, giving them an outlet for their creative needs.”

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But it is no secret that pressure on C-level executives is mounting, says Manfred Kets de Vries, a management professor at INSEAD business school in Fontainebleau, France. The growing demands of the information age have stretched the workday to its limits. A few months before his death, Swisscom’s Schloter complained about constantly having to be reachable. “The most dangerous thing that can happen is that you drop into a mode of permanent activity,” he explained in an interview with Swiss newspaper Schweiz am Sonntag in May. “When you permanently check your smartphone to see if there are any new emails, it leads to you not finding any rest whatsoever.”

“You have to manage these devices very carefully, and many of us don’t do it very well,” says Kets de Vries, who also holds a degree in psychoanalysis. “I work a lot with CEOs, and in my classes, computers, iPhones, and iPads are not allowed. I have noticed a dependency on these devices, to the point where it becomes a disease. I had a student last year I suspected of having a weak bladder. In fact, he had to go out regularly to check his messages on his three phones.”

Instead of constantly being pushed in real time, executives need reflective inactivity, says Kets de Vries. “When I start working with a CEO, I always take a look into their agendas first. I always find them completely full. When do these people have time to think? Cross a few days out, or spend an afternoon walking in the park. That might be the best use of your time.”

Another stress factor is corporate culture itself. “The short-termism of shareholders and the shame of not being able to make your numbers can be relentless, especially in publicly traded companies,” says Kets de Vries. “To deal with this, the quality of the relationship between superior and subordinate is very important.”

That is where it seemed to have gone wrong for Zurich CFO Pierre Wauthier, who left a suicide note mentioning his boss Josef Ackermann. “Wauthier was described by his friends and colleagues as easygoing, rational, and calm in his normal state,” says Gerald Kraines, clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “But the combination of extreme internal conflicts and a perfectionistic need to be successful became unrelenting. Some months before his suicide, he spoke in the press about how all this pressure made it intensely difficult to switch off from work. My sense about him is that he was in a state of severe hyper-arousal and entrapment, to a point where the only way to get out of the pain was to die.”

Adds Kets de Vries, “Senior executives need a place to dump their garbage. Being able to talk about your real problems and anxieties can add years to your life. Some people have a good partner, a wife, or a husband who can help them detox. But many executives are not so lucky. Why do you think the coaching profession has grown so explosively over the past couple of years? All these executives are trying to find someone to talk to.”

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While rigidity, perfectionism, and the need to be in control are common traits among executives worldwide, national culture may play a role in countries like Germany and even Switzerland, says Kraines. “In the top, there is a tremendous sense of pride that makes quitting very difficult. In some ways, it’s like when Japanese executives get shamed or trapped and feel they have no choice but to kill themselves. In their mind, the humiliation of resigning would be more painful than just dying.”

The business culture within American corporations is less taxing, argues Kraines. “In the U.S., we don’t tend to think that if you’re not successful, you’re an abject failure. We have this sort of national belief that if you pick yourself up and try again, you’ll make it some day.

“Besides, there is such a norm of American executives being canned, that there is less humiliation and shame in it. Twenty years ago, the average tenure of a CEO was six to seven years. Now it’s barely half of that. Getting fired or quitting has become part of the game.”