Dying to lead from the corporate front

Two deaths have reignited the discussion of stress taking a toll in high places. Is the live-wire routine, threat of hostile takeovers and long working hours reducing life spans?

Published: 21st August 2022 07:54 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st August 2022 11:38 PM   |  A+A-

Billionaire investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala.

Billionaire investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala. (Photo | Twitter)

The corporate world is still quite stunned by the passing away of two leaders before their time. Rakesh Jhunjhunwalla, the darling of the stock market, died at 62 on August 14, opening up an outpouring of grief. Anshu Jain, just 59, and former global CEO of Deutsche Bank, died a day earlier of duodenal cancer. His passing away saw a more muted response.

The two deaths have reignited the discussion of stress taking a toll in high places. Is the live-wire routine, threat of hostile takeovers and long hours of grappling with financial and other worries, reducing life spans?

Everyone knew Rakesh Jhunjhunwalla was suffering from illness. He was usually seen in public on a wheel-chair. But his cheery pictures on Akasha Air’s inaugural flight to Ahmedabad 10-12 days ago did not say death was so close at hand. He died of cardiac arrest, but Jhunjhunwalla had a litany of problems. His kidneys were in bad shape. He was a diabetic too and had recently undergone angioplasty.
But the investment world was not about to let him go; more so after he had just launched a new airline and there was expectation he would work wonders.

Anshu Jain was of a different league. He grew up in Jaipur and Delhi, but made his mark as Deutsche Bank’s Global CEO, rising through the ranks as the bank’s first non-white, non-German speaking chief executive in 2012. He was always seen as a hard-driving, competitive banker. A colleague quoted by Financial Times said “Anshu was a killer. He always had a knife between his teeth.” But perhaps he cut too many corners and he fell foul of market regulators and had to leave Deutsche Bank.

After he joined Cantor Fitzgerald, a much smaller investment bank, and he was diagnosed with duodenal cancer, he blamed Deutsche Bank and the stress on the job the organisation had caused him.

Stress, the silent killer

In the case of Jhunjhunwalla and Anshu Jain, the direct impact of ‘corporate’ stress still needs to be assessed. But there are umpteen cases chronicled where depression from failure has directly claimed lives. Sample the case of Lalit Sheth: It was a rags-to-riches story where in 1976 Sheth came to Mumbai and pioneered the group travel industry with his company, Raj Travels.

Then he took two wrong decisions – launch of Raj Air as a high value pilgrim air taxi, and a luxury passenger bus ine – both of which went under. Laden with crores of debt he couldn’t pay, 10 years ago on 1 August, Lalit Sheth stopped his car on the Worli Sea Link, in Mumbai, and slipped into the sea to disappear forever.

In 2015, Michael A. Freeman, M.D. University of California, and his team researched mental health concerns among entrepreneurs and found 72% they surveyed reported mental health issues. The most poignant was the case of Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz.

He took his life at 26 after suffering months of depression in 2013, just before he faced a court trial for ‘stealing’ articles from the M.I.T. server which he wanted to make public. Besides his pioneering work as an online entrepreneur, Swartz was an Internet activist who stood against digital censorship. His family said he suffered months of depression as agents investigated his hacking activity.

“There is a moment, immediately before life becomes no longer worth living, when the world appears to slow down and all its myriad details suddenly become brightly, achingly apparent,” he wrote in a 2007 post titled: A Moment Before Dying.

Ageing faster

A working paper released last year by the US’ National Bureau of Economic Research found that CEOs of large companies can age faster and die sooner due to the high-stress scenarios of the job. Working with lifespan data and on-the-job photos of Fortune 500 chief executives, the study, for instance, found that a “30% median firm stock-price decline over a two-year horizon” has an effect similar to 1.5 years of aging.

Other studies have pointed in the same direction. A much-quoted research work by Harvard Business School Professor Tom Nicholas tracked the status and mortality rates of more than 1,000 managers and other employees at General Electric, starting in the 1930s. Results showed that high-level business executives died three to five years earlier on average than lower-level workers at GE, and work-related stress had a bearing on the shorter life spans.

Corporate capitalism, by its very nature, looks at business performance in terms of revenue and profit; and the human functionary – shorn of all the trappings – is a cog in the proverbial wheel. Intrinsically, therefore, the stress in the system is transmitted to the organization’s decision-making network; and the higher up the ladder, the greater the stress.

An entire body of social practice – HR or Human Relations – has therefore been developed to ensure there is a safety valve in the system to prevent the pressure cooker from exploding. But that is provided external factors remain constant.With fast-changing regulations, political upheaval and a yo-yoing international economy, the business enterprise is exacting a higher human cost every day.


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