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Categorized | Insurance

Zurich suicide highlights executive stress

Posted on May 31, 2016


The latest suicide of a top executive in Switzerland has focused attention on the stresses placed on senior managers, their ability to cope with a sudden job loss, and whether society creates particular pressures.

Zurich Insurance announced on Monday that Martin Senn, its former chief executive, had taken his own life six months after he quit the Swiss insurer under a cloud.

    His death came three years after Pierre Wauthier, then Zurich’s finance director, took his own life. Other high-profile suicides include Carsten Schloter, chief executive of Swisscom, the telecoms company, who was found dead at his home just a few weeks before Mr Wauthier’s death.

    In 2008, Alex Widmer, chief executive of Julius Baer, the Swiss private bank, took his life.

    Each case was different, but in Senn’s case those who knew him said he had difficulties coping with his sudden altered status. Such life upheavals could have contributed to depression, experts said.

    “If you are high in a hierarchy and have a dominant psychology, and you define your life and values as such, it can be very damaging for your psychological wellbeing if you lose your position,” said Dr Thomas Heinsius, head doctor at Winterthur’s Policlinic for integrated psychiatry, near Zurich.

    “You become depressed if your psychological repertoire is not sufficiently equipped to deal with the new challenge.”

    “Top people who lose their jobs often fall into a deep hole,” said Rolf Butz, director of the Zürich branch of the Swiss professional employees association. “It is difficult to define their life beyond their profession, their function, status.”

    The emotional challenges might be more acute in Switzerland, where the business elite moves in small circles and the loss of job can lead to exclusion from social networks.

    Senn’s departure from Zurich was abrupt. After losing his job, he also stepped down as chairman of the Swiss-American chamber of commerce, although he had agreed to stay on until a successor was elected.

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    “The Swiss suicide rate is not so far off the European rate, but maybe Swiss men are less used to sharing emotions or seeking help. Maybe it is more difficult losing your status in a small country, where you cannot easily just change town,” said Dr Heinsius.

    Business environments can be stiff; a former Zurich employee complained that open discussion of Wauthier’s death in 2013 was discouraged.

    Some in Switzerland’s also point out there is less of a culture of “acceptable failure” than in the US — the idea that you can recover after a setback — which means the stakes are even higher for chief executives. Those involved in big corporate failures are often never heard of again.

    Mr Senn left Zurich after large losses in its general insurance division and an aborted takeover bid for RSA, the UK insurer.

    Drawing parallels is hard, however, even in the two Zurich Insurance cases. The death of Wauthier came while he was still in his job — although independent investigations later concluded there was no indication he had been subjected to undue pressure by any of the insurer’s leadership and that there were no irregularities in its financial reporting.

    Trying to find common causes behind recent Swiss executive suicides smacked of “hobby psychiatry”, warned Martin Naville, chief executive of the Swiss-American chamber of commerce. “It is a very unlucky set of coincidences. They were all very different situations and characters.”