The World Economic Forum has a troubled twin down the road from Davos where burned-out executives seek refuge in a clinic with all the trappings of Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain.”
“Most of our patients come here in pretty poor shape,” said Mattias Bulfoni, who runs Clinica Holistica Engiadina, 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Davos. “Some of them aren’t even able to drive a car any more, most of them have a sleeping disorder. Some take drugs or have alcohol problems.”
Almost one century after Mann created the story of Hans Castorp’s visit to a Davos sanatorium, the world’s wealthy continue to beat a path to the snow-bound peaks of eastern Switzerland. While most attendees at this year’s World Economic Forum will be addressing “Shared Norms for the New Reality,” the conference does acknowledge the dangers of sleep deprivation.
Burnout is “the massive exhaustion after years of overwork and frustration,” said Doris Straus, the medical director at Clinica Holistica. The symptoms are an “inability to concentrate, to sleep, to make decisions, to have a social life and to switch off after work,” she said.
In the village of Susch, patients spend as much as 800 francs ($832) a day to learn relaxation techniques as they walk through the surrounding forests and mountains and get massages.
One patient, a Swiss pharmaceutical executive, said she realized it was time to check herself in when she threw a temper tantrum at her boss. The 60-year-old executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, plans to return to work and ask for more clearly-defined responsibilities to avoid another breakdown.
She is the latest dropout to visit Clinica Holistica. In Mann’s 1924 novel, Castorp, the scion of a Hamburg merchant family, travels to the resort to visit his sick cousin. He meets members of the European ruling class oblivious to signs of the coming world war that would destroy it.
Davos participants will attend sessions this year entitled “The Science of Mastering Emotions” and “Burnout -- The Latest Fashion?” The panels will address whether “the strong suffer from burnout, while the weak suffer from depression.”
For some bankers, the emotional fallout from the 2008 financial collapse continues even after Barclays Plc Chief Executive Officer Robert Diamond said this month that the “period of remorse and apology” is over.
“The pressure on bankers increased,” said Straus, sitting in her study where modern metallic furniture contrasts Swiss pine ceiling and paneling from 1618. “Not only because of the bigger workload, it’s also the fear to lose the job and the loss of reputation because of banker bashing.”
Treatments at the Holistica, which has room for 41 patients, include psychological counseling, sleep analysis or Qigong, a Chinese workout and relaxation technique. Longer-term clients typically stay between two and six weeks.
In Susch, there are few cars and there is no buzz. Internet and mobile phone usage is discouraged in the clinic, and the rooms don’t have TV.
In the past 11 years, the number of sick days because of psychological diseases increased 91 percent in Germany, with depression and burnout cited as being the most frequent reasons, according to Werner Kissling of Technische Universitaet Muenchen’s Centre of Disease Management. “Among the 150 companies we have advised in the last three years, there were around 30 large German banks.”
Booz & Co., a consulting company that looked at the world’s top 2,500 listed companies, suggests that stress is taking its toll on senior executives. The average tenure of a global chief executive officer has dropped to 6.3 years from 8.1 years over the past decade, according to the study published in May. Chief executives are being “asked to do more, faster,” Booz said.
Jeffrey B. Kindler, the former CEO of drugmaker Pfizer Inc., said in December when he resigned that he needed to “recharge” his batteries after a “period extremely demanding on me personally.”
The Swiss pharmaceutical executive, who is approaching the end of a three-week stay, said she came because she is afflicted by insomnia and she can’t sit still and read a book.
People in senior positions who have high expectations are the most at risk of suffering from burnout syndrome, according to psychiatrist Straus. “Other reasons are a lack of recognition and reward as well as not being able to control one’s schedule. You feel endlessly pushed,” said Straus. “You don’t determine your projects, they determine you.”
The exhaustion leads patients to question the meaning of life and leaves them wonder what to do.
“People tended to gloss over that and say they’re just tired,” said Heinz Schuepbach, a psychologist at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland in Olten, who will be in Davos. “Today, they tell the doctor that they just can’t handle it anymore,” and they “get exhausted in a treadmill.”
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