What explains the spike in the number of top-level corporate honchos taking their lives
In May this year, the chief operating officer of Encyclopaedia Britannica took his life by plunging down the ventilation shaft of his residential building.
In April, after his text and messaging app failed to take off, 33-year-old Lucky Gupta Agarwal, founder and CEO of KQingdom Ites, killed himself by inhaling nitrogen.
In 2012, Lalit Sheth, owner of Raj Travels, drowned himself in the Arabian Sea when failures overshadowed the stupendous successes he had seen as a tourism tycoon.
All these people lived in metros, had access to the best medical facilities and yet did not seek help before taking the extreme step. While the factors behind any suicide are complex, often a mix of both personal and professional issues, mental health experts point to the rising tide among C-suite executives in an era where both success and failure are given undue importance. “People at the top find it more difficult to admit they have a problem ...to relate to someone not as intelligent as them,” says Anjali Chhabria, psychiatrist and founder of Mindtemple, a mental wellness clinic in Mumbai.
A 2015 study by Assocham found depression or general anxiety disorder prevalent among nearly 42.5 per cent of employees in the private sector, with demanding schedules, high stress levels and performance-linked perquisites cited as the main causes.
Medics warn that untreated depression can lead to suicide. “Just as the risk of heart disease is death, the risk of untreated depression is also death,” says Dr Chhabria.
According to the World Health Organisation, each year about eight lakh people commit suicide worldwide. Nearly 1.35 lakh, or 17 per cent, of them are Indians. Between 1987 and 2007, the suicide rate in the country increased from 7.9 to 10.3 per lakh. Government figures indicate that four-fifths of the suicide victims were literate.
Alpha and insecure
Johnson Thomas, director at Mumbai-based mental health NGO Aasra, says his suicide helpline receives nearly 100 to 150 calls every day, including many from businessmen, professionals and CXOs. “Today’s generation is ambitious and wants everything fast, but is not able to take rejection. If there is any loss of pay or position or some negative commentary on their professionalism, they tend to take it much harder compared to the previous generation,” he says.
Compared to a generation ago, many of today’s CXOs are much younger.
According to a 2014 global study by advisory firm Zinnov, the average age of CEOs who founded companies after 2000 is 36, compared with 39 for the founders who came before. The study, across the global 500 R&D spenders, also found that the average age of CEO appointments has fallen by four years after 2000.
Rajiv Vij, Singapore-based life and executive coach, says that while younger people are competent for bigger corporate roles for the most part, they are sometimes emotionally unprepared for the significant ups and downs of a corporate leadership role. “Additionally, owing to business pressures, seniors may not have sufficient time to groom the new leaders,” he says.
A telling point for today’s generation is that resilience levels are very low, adds Thomas.
There are several reasons why many at the top find it difficult to share or discuss workplace troubles with friends and family.
The CXO-level executives are largely characterised by alpha personalities and high achievers, but they also need someone to confide in and are usually unable to find anybody, says Thomas. “If they confide in a junior, they may be looked down upon. A colleague at the same level may be a threat to their position and confiding in a senior could mean their job is at risk.”
Making friends with failure
Culturally, too, Indians are largely wary of sharing their personal challenges with others. “For many, there’s a stigma attached to reaching out to a psychotherapist or even a coach,” says Vij, who used to be a managing director for Franklin Templeton Investments until he quit in 2006 to embark on a journey of personal growth and helping others in theirs. Even parents today are focused only on education, says Thomas. They don’t tell their children that life has ups and downs, leaving them incapable of handling setbacks with fortitude.
In November last year, Angad Paul, son of India-born Britain-based businessman Swraj Paul, plunged to death from his penthouse in central London. The CEO of Caparo Industries took the step after the company went into administration and many jobs were lost.
In Switzerland, Zurich Insurance CFO Pierre Wauthier took his life in 2013, while the company’s former chief executive Martin Senn killed himself in May this year. The high-pressure world of Wall Street investment bankers is notorious for suicides.
Trouble brewing online
The Internet comes in for flak, too, for overemphasising failures and successes with every click. “The Internet has also made people insecure. People who don’t have the right values are actually using it for dishonouring others,” says motivational speaker Shiv Khera.
The constant updates on social media piles on unnecessary pressure, says Chhabria. “You may get a lot of likes, or you may feel sorry for yourself when you don’t,” she says.
But in the world of business, it is not only corporate honchos who are ill-prepared for life’s vicissitudes — online or offline.
Small and medium business owners, stockbrokers as well as real estate executives are also high on the ‘suicidal’ list.
Following the stock market crash in 2008, there was a spate of suicides by stockbrokers in India.
A broker who had lost all his wealth reached out to the Aasra helpline. He explained that he was unable to even call his family as that would put the loan sharks on his trail. “We talked him out of suicide and helped him tide over the crisis,” Thomas recounts.
Family in the loop
Chhabria stresses the importance of a robust family support system in the battle against depression and suicide.
Khera points out that, all too often, successful CXOs have little trouble facing the external world but struggle to deal with the internal world of family relationships. “When people have poor relationships in the family, they become internally weak. The probability of committing suicide then becomes high.”
Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive officer of trillion-dollar investment fund PIMCO, decided to invest more in his family by quitting his job in January 2014 after his 10-year-old daughter listed 22 milestones he had missed in her life.
While this may appear extreme, most CXOs would be better off targeting work-home balance. “We tend to identify ourselves too much with our professional work,” says Vij, advising a healthy and balanced perspective instead.
Moreover, being open to sharing problems with others or seeking professional support is helpful too, he adds.
“India is in a transitional phase and, unlike before, there is no support from a joint family. Being bonded with the immediate family is essential,” Thomas says. Keeping family in tow while climbing the corporate ladder may slow down the journey, but it will perhaps be more sure-footed.
(This article was published on July 15, 2016)

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