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Zurich Insurance

Suicide highlights Swiss executive stress

By Ralph Atkins, Zurich

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

Zurich Insurance has announced that Martin Senn, its former chief executive, has 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, also took his own life. Other high profile suicides include Carsten Schloter, chief executive of telecoms company Swisscom. In 2008, Alex Widmer, chief executive of Julius Baer, the Swiss private bank, also took his life.

Those who knew him said Senn had difficulties coping with his sudden altered status. The upheaval 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,” added Rolf Butz, director of the Zurich 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. The business elite move in relatively small circles and the loss of job can lead to being excluded 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.

“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 also point out there is less of a culture of “acceptable failure” than in the US - the idea that you can bounce back 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. 

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016

Financial Times


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