Swiss Suicide Prompts the Question: What's Undue Stress in a C-Suite?

Josef Ackermann speaks at the St. Gallen Symposium, on May 2 in St. Gallen, Switzerland Photograph by Keystone, Gian Ehrenzeller/AP Images

One of the business world’s sadder and more macabre stories is coming out of serene Switzerland this week. An executive, Pierre Wauthier, finance chief at Zurich Insurance, allegedly killed himself and penned a suicide note detailing pressure from Chairman Josef Ackermann.

When Wauthier’s family brought the letter to the remaining executives at Zurich Insurance, Ackermann stepped down, though he described the allegations as “unfounded.” Suffice to say, this isn’t the sort of management challenge one finds in a business school syllabus.

This morning the company’s executives cobbled together a quick conference call in a bid to calm investors. Chief Executive Martin Senn said there is no link between Wauthier’s death and the company’s performance. But he also said Senn “did an excellent job at all times” and the company’s board would “look into the question as to whether there was undue pressure placed on our CFO.”

Ackermann is certainly no softie. One doesn’t rise to the top of an outfit like Deutsche Bank and steer it through the Great Recession without driving a lot of troops above and beyond the call of duty. And it’s certainly likely Ackermann was leaning on Wauthier, a 53-year-old father of two. He joined the board in May 2012 and recently had to sign off on some worse-than-expected results. But it was Ackermann’s job—his legal obligation, in fact—to pressure Wauthier and to a greater extent Senn, the CEO. Meanwhile, former colleagues told Reuters, Ackermann never lost his cool or got personal with co-workers.

Sadly, Wauthier’s fate is relatively common in the business. White males in finance, insurance, and real estate are 1.12 times more likely to commit suicide that the average Joe, according to data compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Suicide statistics are particularly grim for insurance salesmen, who kill themselves 1.38 times more often than average. Financial officers, however, tend to commit suicide at slightly lower-than-typical rates.

Meanwhile, the inquiry announced today raises many more questions than it answers. What constitutes “undue stress” in one of the world’s most-stressful jobs—overseeing finances at a company with more than $70 billion in annual revenue? How will the board go about its investigation? And what does it plan to do with the findings?

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