By Clare Hutchison
LONDON Aug 28 The suicides of two top
executives in Switzerland has prompted calls for greater support
for boardroom highfliers.
Heavy workloads, frenetic schedules and extensive overseas
travel has obliterated the so-called "work-life balance" for
many bosses and the financial crisis has piled on the pressure
with job cuts, firesales and the scramble to survive.
"It has always been tough at the top and it has always been
lonely at the top and certainly since the global financial
crisis, it's got even lonelier and even tougher," said Executive
Mentor David CM Carter, author of self-help book Breakthrough.
"That's why it's really important that those people at the
top pay attention to the need for balance," he said, pointing to
entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson and Bill Gates, who have
teamed glittering careers with a successful family life.
"They do hot air ballooning, they save the planet as well as
running their fantastic empires. They have holidays and hobbies
or they focus on their family and their relationships and on
But career chief executives often face more pressure from
shareholders and their boards than company founders such as
Branson and Gates.
And while they usually have a coterie of staff running
around them, chief executive officers often feel isolated by
their position and the high-stakes decisions they have to take.
The need always to present a "game face" can inhibit them from
confiding in colleagues.
Zurich Insurance Group's Chief Financial Officer
Pierre Wauthier was found dead at his home on Monday in what
police said appeared to be a suicide.
Just weeks earlier, Carsten Schloter, the chief executive of
telecoms group Swisscom, killed himself.
The deaths shocked Switzerland's corporate community and
have highlighted the sometimes lonely existence of high-ranking
In media interviews, Schloter expressed regret about the
distance between him and his three children in Germany, whom he
saw far less frequently due to the breakdown of his marriage. He
also said he found it "difficult to unwind".
Executives often spend large amounts of time away from their
friends and family and it is not uncommon for bosses to live in
a different city or even country for work and commute home at
Schloter had also faced pressure after an acquisition he
championed led to 1.3 billion euros of writedowns. More
recently, Switzerland's competition body said it had opened a
probe into Swisscom after a rival suggested it abused its market
Corporate over-achievers are often reluctant to seek help in
managing their professional burdens until too late, according to
Jenny Gould, executive coach and life coach with Oxford-based
stress management and coaching company STP Consultancy.
"Stress is something that's very insidious -- you can deal
with it for quite a long time before you then begin to find
yourself burning out from it," she said.
In 2011, Lloyd's Banking Group Chief Executive
Antonio Horta-Osorio took a temporary leave of absence to
recover from overwork, sleep deprivation and exhaustion.
Horta-Osario was just eight months into his role at the
bailed out lender, where he had embarked on a large scale
restructuring programme. He returned after two months off.
"Stress is often caused by a lack of control and a lack of
support. If you feel like you can't control certain outcomes and
don't have anybody to discuss your worries and feelings with...
that's potentially a toxic mix," Gould said.
In the past year, the chief executive of energy giant Shell
has quit and the chairman of luxury goods group
Richemont has taken a year-long sabbatical despite facing no
obvious pressure to leave.
They cited a desire for a change of lifestyle or simply a
break from the life at the top.
But companies need to watch for signs that all staff, junior
and senior, are coping with their increasingly demanding roles.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch said last week it
would review the working conditions for junior employees after a
21-year old intern, Moritz Erhardt, died after allegedly working
72 hours without sleep.
The cause of his death is not yet known.
Neil Shah, director at Stress Management Society, a
non-profit organisation dedicated to helping people tackle
stress, said firms who turn a blind eye to the pressures on
overworked executives are exposing themselves to commercial
"We need to view stress as a health and safety risk hazard,"
Shah said. "In the UK, we are legally required to risk assess
for display screen equipment but you're not at this stage
legally required to assess for stress.
"This is a major issue not just causing, in the worst case
scenario, loss of life, but it has an impact on productivity,
efficiency and causes absences. Those are real financial costs."