Increasingly, scores of well-educated, highly paid CEOs, senior managers of multinationals and those working with PSUs are taking their own lives due to stress and inability to cope with a life. Gayatri Ramanathan recounts what has been happening and the way out.
*On May 16, 2016, 47 year old Vineet Whig’s, COO of Britannica committed suicide on Sunday by jumping off from the 19th floor of Belvedere Park tower in Gurgaon’s DLF phase-2 area. A note was found from Vineet Whig’s, COO of Britannica, pocket stating that he was fed up with his life, Vinit Vij, lived with his wife and three children in an apartment in Tower C and allegedly jumped off from the top floor of the same tower at 8 am.
*On April 28, 2016, Sudhindra Murthy, 57, a senior manager, working with the bank’s JP Nagar branch in Bangalore. He was allegedly harassed by seniors over recovery of loans.
Last year alone, Wall Street saw more than a dozen suicides. In India, many CEOs and senior managers have taken their lives and at the time of writing this story reports indicated that the Chief Conservator of Forests, Haryana, Ajay Kadian had jumped off a 6th floor hotel room in a presumed suicide.
Life can be stressful and especially so when one has allegedly climbed the ladder and become a senior professional in a company. And yet, despite years of experience in professional field and not to mention the maturity that comes with greying hair, hundreds of persons across India prefer to end their lives leaving their near and dear ones askance.
Fortunately Usha Fernandes did not end her life though. She was working in a large corporation with an edgy and dogmatic superior. Things started going wrong from day one – the superior with whom she had a dotted line reporting and the bulk of assignments, began to assign work she had completed to a junior to check, rather than checking it herself. When Fernandes complained, with her senior superior flouncing out of the room saying it is her prerogative how she handled her staff.
Initially Fernandes ignored the harassment, sometimes she would push back; and eventually, it came to a point where it started affecting her performance. As pressure to perform piled up, so did the harassment. One day, she woke up in the middle of the night, bathed in sweat and short of breath. She remained in hospital for two weeks on account of a heart attack and finally quit the toxic job.
“Initially I did not take it seriously; I thought my work would speak for me. I never realised it was systematic harassment; nor did it cross my mind to quit. In hindsight, I think could just have told the woman to take a flying leap. But it took me many years to even think it!” says Fernandes.
For Menaka Shivaji, sexual harassment was an extra ingredient in an already deadly cocktail of demanding clients, hectic schedules combined with short deadlines. A superior who insisted on sexual favours before evaluating her work and an indifferent management just meant that she felt she had “no choice but to quit and move cities, because I was so traumatised,” says the 32 year-old insurance professional.
Fernandes and Shivaji were lucky, unlike many others on the corporate ladder who, unable to bear the stress, have felt compelled to take their own lives. There are reasons behind this inability to communicate and end life.
Harish Shetty, a Mumbai based psychologist, “We live in a highly pressurised society with practically no safety valves.” According to Shetty one of the biggest fallouts of globalisation is the breakdown of the family system which has left people, adults and children, rudderless and without safety nets. “There is the pressure of work, and that of the family and society. How can one individual measure up to expectations at so many different levels?”
Rajesh Barwe, a psychologist and trainer on stress related issues with several top Indian corporates and ex-faculty, Welingkar Management Institute, Mumbai adds “People in that kind of situation are on auto-pilot. They have no idea what is happening or how to counter it.”
What is the way out? Paresh Kulkarni, a communications professional says that family and friends play an important role in such crisis. Paresh ventured out on his own a few years ago but soon had to shut shop and return to a regular job. “I was lucky to have my family and friends around me,” he says.
Work environments, however, are not always supportive. Barwe says this has to do with a culture that sees stress as an enabler. “Sure, you do well for a while. But for how long will your body and mind cope with extended and elevated stress levels? Sooner or later you will burn out.” Barwe says most his clients come from teaching, banking and financial markets, especially the small sub brokers who cannot withstand prolonged financial stress
And it is beginning to happen in small ways. Barwe says that of late a number of companies are asking him to talk not about stress but about resilience. “I mostly tell stories – of people who’ve coped with difficult situations – 9/11, the tsunami, all kinds of situations. That is what people take back – stories that inspire them and give them strategies to get through tough times.”
Adds Mahalaxmi D M, HR and Wellness Counsellor and founder of Mindchats an online forum focused on helping executive cope with work stress, “Nowadays, corporates encourage individual hobby culture, such as marathons, wildlife enthusiasm or trekking and camping. But what we require today and this is still missing in a big way, is counseling through talk therapy.”
(Names of victims have been changed at their request)