The man took his job very seriously. He worked hard and rose to the top ranks of his company. When hard times hit, he doubled down his effort and was appointed interim CFO. But as the pressures outside of his company grew, they seemed to affect him personally. He continued to put in long hours. His mood grew more somber, he abandoned his sense of fun, and perhaps worst of all, he felt if he quit his CFO post it would look bad for his company. His boss who liked him and respected his work told him to take some time off. The next day his wife found him dead, hanging in the basement of their suburban home.
Unfortunately this story is true, a condensation of the fine reporting conducted by James Haggerty and Gary Fields of the Wall Street Journal about the death of David Kellermann, acting CFO of Freddie Mac. This tragedy becomes a footnote to the recession that has ravaged not only the careers, but the lives of so many talented employees.
What Kellermann endured is not so unusual on the surface; most senior leaders feel tremendous pressure to succeed, in good times but especially in bad times. The survivors learn to cope; some never do, especially those who have experienced a high degree of success throughout their lives and may lack the resilience skills honed by previous setbacks.
So it falls to management to keep a watchful eye on its employees. No manager should play therapist, but he or she can be trained to watch for the warning signs of extreme stress and depression. The manager can urge the individual to seek help. I’m an executive coach (not a licensed clinician), but here are three stress factors that affect high-achievers and bear watching:
Doing more by working more. When your company is experiencing hardship, it is natural to want to do more to save it. But soon enough you hit the law of diminishing returns. When you log seven day weeks month after month, not only do you cheat yourself of rest and your family of your time, you rob yourself of the opportunity to re-energize, re-group, and re-think what you are doing. You get locked into a trap of diminishing returns.
Losing sense of self. Work is hard. Right now, it’s probably harder than usual. But always we must try to keep it in perspective. If the work causes you to lose your personality, become withdrawn, and lose the sense of who you are, it is not worth it. Your performance suffers and so too do the people who work with you. You need to take a break.
Conflating job with corporate survival. All of us like to think we are important. That’s healthy. But when we think we’re indispensable, or worse, that our job affects the fate of the entire company, then we are crossing into a kind of twilight zone of unreal expectations. Even if you have a high-stakes job, you need to divorce what you do from who you are.
Many of us work long hours, internalize tension, and may feel that we are responsible for everyone else. But when these stress factors interfere with our work and personal lives, we owe it to ourselves to talk to others and consider seeking professional help. Seeking clinical help is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength and profound self-awareness, something all leaders must exhibit.
What we can learn from the Kellermann tragedy is to be more vigilant. Thankfully, most people undertaking high stress jobs do not break down; some actually thrive under the pressure. But no one can handle everything, all the time. Managers need to be proactive, and in times of severe stress, know when to pull people off the line — at least until the stressed individual can seek professional help and find healthy ways to cope with the pressure.
For more on depression, its symptoms and its treatments, visit the National Institute of Mental Health. Additional information on as well as local resources for depression treatment can be found by visiting the National Network of Depression Centers.
First posted on HBR.org 5/07/2009