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How much are bosses to blame when an employee takes his own life?

Josef Ackermann said he was “deeply shocked” by the apparent suicide of Zurich Insurance Group CFO Pierre Wauthier, but the veteran top banker still abruptly resigned from his part-time supervisory role at the global insurer. Is Ackermann’s public acknowledgement of suspicion that Wauthier’s family blames him for the death mean he should be held accountable to some degree?

“Some managers push their reports hard and don't acknowledge or simply ignore the side effects. That doesn't mean that senior execs should take on the role of shrink but many do expect undivided loyalty and absolute commitment,” says Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide.

“And some employees do reach a breaking point," adds Cohen. "An unreasonable manager tends not to care but he should be held accountable when expectations are extreme or unreasonable. That is the equivalent of a toxic and unsafe work environment. Unfortunately, the prevailing belief and an economy that continues to hemorrhage workers allows for bad behavior.”

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Ackermann, a former chief executive of Deutsche Bank who endured a highly publicized criminal trial and a boardroom brawl over his successor, is painfully aware of the demands in a hyper-competitive industry where employees are often pushed far beyond their limits.

"In the end this is a leadership issue from top to bottom of organizations – driven either by leaders inability to plan the delivery of what they have to deliver effectively, by their inability to refuse to take on targets from their boss they patently can’t achieve, their inability to 'let go' and deputize, or by their inability to get their people to perform well enough to deliver whats required due to their own poor leadership," said Chris Roebuck, a visiting professor of leadership at Cass Business School.

"Over many years in the corporate world the problem of people saying 'yes' to things that aren’t possible and their boss not bothering to think about asking for the impossible is the cause of a significant amount of totally pointless stress," adds Roebuck, a British economist who has held senior HR roles at international banks. "Add to that the fact that no one wants to be 'seen to fail,' which isn’t actually whats happening,  but how the culture often sees it, and you have a recipe for this sort of tragedy to occur.  There are probably many many more out there we never hear about as they are middle or junior leaders."

The sudden death of Wauthier, who had worked at Zurich since 1996 and had been chief financial officer since 2011, came as the insurer posted a hefty second-quarter loss blamed on natural disasters including tornado damage in Oklahoma and flooding in Europe.

“I have reasons to believe that the family is of the opinion that I should take my share of responsibility, as unfounded as any allegations might be,” Ackermann said in a statement. “As a consequence, I see the possibility of a continued successful board leadership to the benefit of Zurich called into question. To avoid any damage to Zurich’s reputation, I have decided to resign from all my board functions with immediate effect.”

Marc Hodak, managing director of Hodak Value Advisors and an adjunct associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, said "Stress is so much a part of every executive's job that a boss would have to be a psychiatrist to be able to distinguish the overall strain on any given subordinate, and when it is too much for them to handle. This is especially true if much of the stress is coming from outside of work, and the subordinate is trying to hide that."

Most bosses can "read" employees, and reassign some work if it seemed the strain was getting too much, said Hodak.

"If it was really obvious, they would typically tell a subordinate to seek counseling. (And remind them that it's a paid benefit.) I have both seen and experienced this, but I'm sure many instances get overlooked," he said. "Most of the overlooked situations will result in someone quitting. If for some reason they can't, that would be a problem. The resignation of senior officers is a corporate as much as personal matter."

David B. Kellermann was promoted to the top financial position at the mortgage giant Freddie Mac some seven months before he hanged himself in his basement in April 2009. His boss and other top executives were let go when the Treasury secretary seized Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae amid an exodus of other employees, and Kellermann staretd working around the clock. As the economy and the housing market continued to collapse, he was slated to take home $850,000 over 16 months, making him the target of public attention and outcry.

"Kellerman tried to resign, but his resignation wasn't accepted," said Hodak. "Something similar may have been at work here."

Bosses have a “moral and legal duty” to make sure employees aren’t overextended themselves, Roebuck said following the death of Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

But few are ever held accountable for the extreme actions of employees who are overworked, overburdened or unable to cope with pressure in a cutthroat workplace.

Zurich Insurance spokesman Björn Emde said there had been no indication that Wauthier was suffering from extreme duress.

Wauthier’s death follows the suicide of another prominent Swiss executive, Carsten Schloter, head of Swisscom, the country’s dominant telecommunications provider.

Suicide among people in performance-based roles that are tied to economic conditions, market volatility or natural disasters is nothing new.

While accounts of people hurling themselves from windows following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 have been grossly exaggerated, the tragedies that are tied to such events cannot be undermined. There are stories that go back centuries. On May 24, 1881, trader Attilio Guinio drank poison after losing $200 on Delaware and Lackawanna Railroad shares.

There have been flurries of high-profile suicides globally over time. While none are clearly connected, the causes can often be traced to the same stresses.

German investor Adolf Merckle, a multibillionaire who lost a fortune on shorted Volkswagen stock, threw himself under a train on Jan. 5, 2009. Two weeks earlier, Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, an heir to French aristocracy and the co-founder of an investment fund whose lost a fortune in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, told maintenance workers to leave his Madison Avenue office before he slashed his wrists with a box cutter. Five days prior, the body of Christen Schnor, HSBC’s head of insurance, was discovered hanging by a belt in a closet of a $750-a-night suite at London’s Jumeirah Carlton Tower.

Bear Stearns research supervisor Barry Fox took a drug overdose and then plunged 29 stories from his apartment in Fort Lee, New Jersey, on May 22, 2008, after learning he wouldn't be hired by J.P. Morgan Chase. But his demise was likely in the making long before the bank’s collapse and the financial crisis. Fred Philippi, his longtime companion, said that after several personal setbacks, "this Bear Stearns thing happened to be the last straw that broke his spirit.”

There was no finger pointing in Fox’s death, but the culture in general begs the question of how much bosses should do to identify signs of struggles in employees and when and whether they should intervene.

Erhardt’s death has sparked much debate, as the aspiring banker was out to impress his bosses.

Ben Lyons, co-founder of Intern Aware, a charity seeking to improve the treatment of interns, called for a “change in culture and HR procedures where employees are assessed not on the total number of hours they are able to grind out, but on the quality of work they are able to produce."

Follow the author on Twitter @natashagural

AUTHORNatasha Gural Insider Comment

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