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The death of Bed Bath & Beyond’s CFO is a wake-up call about mental health in the C-suite. But who’s looking out for leaders?

September 15, 2022, 10:00 AM UTC
Gabby Jones—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The early September death of Gustavo Arnal, the former CFO of troubled retailer Bed Bath & Beyond, shocked the business community. The 52-year-old executive fell from the 18th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper on Sept. 2 in what has been ruled a suicide

His death is a tragic reminder that money and status do not shield business leaders from anguish and emotional distress and might serve as a wake-up call for corporate chiefs. The message? The same compassion and push for the destigmatization of mental health disorders that employers have championed among rank-and-file employees must be extended to the C-suite, where it may be even more necessary.

The past two years haven’t been particularly kind to C-suite executives. They’ve seen their workload increase, and they face an endless stream of unprecedented challenges that fall to them to solve. A 2021 global survey of more than 12,000 employees found that 53% of C-suite leaders were struggling to adapt, compared with 45% of average employees. Now, with some employers signaling a return to pre-pandemic hustle culture, exhausted C-suite executives may be at greater risk for burnout or mood disorders. Given the proverbial loneliness at the top, and the general culture of the C-suite, they may be the group least likely to speak up or to raise their hand when they need help or a break.

As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, Bed Bath & Beyond’s leadership was worried about Arnal’s stress level in the weeks before he died by suicide, and he was reportedly putting in 18-hour days. Yet the question of how to manage burnout, feeling overwhelmed, and more serious mental health issues in the C-suite can seem like a riddle: Exactly who should be minding the minders, the employees at the pinnacle of the corporate ladder, the people who are asked to model the best well-being practices for others? And what can be done to help them?

There are many ways to answer these questions. At the most basic level, CEOs, as managers of the C-suite, are tasked with watching for signs of distress, mental health crises, and behaviors like excessive alcohol use, eating disorders, exercise addiction, or other damaging coping mechanisms among their executives. When necessary, they are expected to seek guidance from the right people internally, including human resources leaders. 

As for CEOs, they have an entire team of professionals who are, in theory, monitoring their well-being: corporate boards. The board is responsible for measuring and optimizing CEO performance. In an ideal world, experts say, that would include ensuring that a CEO is physically and mentally up for the job.

Company charters do not specifically call for a board to provide the CEO with moral and emotional support, but that might be a matter of time, thanks to a growing body of research on the correlation between well-being and job performance. In any case, directors are expected to make use of their long corporate track records and act as coaches and mentors to CEOs, especially when chief executives feel overwhelmed.

The best boards intervene and extend reinforcement to the C-suite, too, when they detect problems. That might mean simply saying, “You look stressed. Have you taken a break?”

Boards and CEOs must also be ready to act once they embark on such a discussion, given that business can’t grind to a halt when a C-suite executive, in charge of large swaths of the business, needs a break. To that end, companies may need to enlist external consultants to strategize or run an executive search. The possibility of a crisis among leaders is yet another one of the many reasons companies need to have succession plans in place.

Addressing mental health issues is one thing—getting executives to open up about personal turmoil is another. That’s why it’s also critical for companies to establish a culture that makes mental health a prominent consideration, says Hooria Jazaieri, assistant professor of management at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business.

She sees this as a duty that every worker shares equally, regardless of rank. “It’s not just, ‘What do we espouse as our values around mental health, physical health, and well-being, but what are we actually enacting in our organization around these types of things?’” she says. For example, knowing that uninterrupted sleep creates a strong foundation for better health, companies can assess how they enforce rules about late-night or early-morning emails and what’s being done to protect employees’ weekends. Ask: “What are we doing as an organization to support all of our employees, from the summer intern all the way up to the C-suite?” 

Open communication is also key, and employees should be encouraged to be vocal and direct with one another. “If we are concerned about people in our life, whether that’s personally or professionally, we should be willing to say something,” says Jazaieri, who previously worked as a licensed therapist in Silicon Valley. In addressing psychological issues, employees should be specific, name the behaviors they’re observing, and express how they feel about them. (For instance, “I feel sad or concerned about what I’m seeing,” says Jazaieri.) Offer to listen, assist, or connect workers with professional therapists.

Ultimately, corporate America needs to normalize these kinds of conversations and abandon the unrealistic expectation of relentless positivity, Jazaieri says.

For now, the C-suite remains a place where resilience and hustle are especially prized, sometimes to a fault, because it’s not in the nature of these problem-solving, often loyal high achievers to give up or ask for help. That’s all the more reason for CEOs and boards to take an executive seriously when they finally speak up about personal struggles. By that time, the problem has become grave, and the executive should be thanked for having the courage to confide in a peer. Urging that person to “push through,” ought to be off the table.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or 1-800-273-8255.

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