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Successful But Lonely At The Top
AS COMPANIES WORK through the Covid-19 outbreak, one man worries about the mental health impact it might have on the C-suite executives steering them. He knows the financial stress a crisis like this puts on businesses. When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, his F&B company lost 50 percent of its revenue for nine months, forcing him to eventually sell his entire business to a competitor.
It’s heartbreaking, to say the least, to spend 14 years building something, only to lose it all. At the height of its success, the company earned a World Gourmet Summit award, and the man (speaking on conditions of anonymity) received a nomination for Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. He sat on the boards of various organisations and people constantly sought his advice on expansion into China.
But by 2009, his dream life started to unravel. A month after he lost his company, his wife filed for divorce. He fell ill and stayed home alone to recuperate. Left to his own devices with few friends to confide in, he sank into depression and thought of suicide.
“I had gotten so used to being chauffeured around and wearing bespoke clothes," he recalls. "Everyone was nice to me because they wanted to get great service when they went to my restaurants. I shook hands with ministers. Aspiring entrepreneurs knew my name.”
“But when I lost my company, people started avoiding me. The phone stopped ringing and the only people knocking on my door were debt collectors. To be fair, I don’t think people shunned me because they were mean or opportunistic. They just didn’t know what to say to me, because they had no idea what it’s like to lose a business.”
Failure is such a taboo topic in Singapore that “we as a society collectively fail to address it when it happens,” he says. “In recent years, the government has started to talk about how Singaporeans should see failure as part and parcel of entrepreneurship, and remove the stigma attached to it. But back in 2009, there was no such recognition… I struggled for years to get back on my feet.”
LEADERS HIDE STRUGGLES
While stress is an inevitable component of work life, the pressure can be particularly acute for men and women at the top, says Maria Micha, a clinical mental health counselor and corporate trainer with over two decades of practice.
“I would say that 100 per cent of C-level managers suffer from anxiety. And 70 to 80 per cent of them have mild, moderate or severe depression. About 10 per cent have suicidal thoughts – though only a small percentage of that actually act on it,” she says.
“The biggest problem is the taboo surrounding these issues. C-suite execs risk losing their position if they admit they’re experiencing depression or contemplating suicide, because there’s so much riding on the public perception that their companies are doing well… As a result, many of them don’t look for help because they’re afraid about word getting out.”
Nick Jonsson, managing director of EGN Singapore, kept his condition a secret at first. When he fell into depression in 2018, he started drinking heavily and gaining a lot of weight. At the lowest point of his struggle, he took a trip to Batam for a full health screening – afraid that if he went to a Singapore clinic, someone might recognise him and tattle.
The doctors there gave him a very poor assessment of his health, which consequently spurred him to seek professional help from other doctors, a mental health counselor and a fitness coach. For further treatment, he flew to a Bangkok hospital – again fearful of being spotted in a Singapore clinic.
“Most senior executives won’t admit it,” he says, “but it’s incredibly isolating to be an expatriate in a foreign country. If you are, say, a regional director based in Singapore, you might be reporting to a CEO in the US or Europe. And it's very hard to communicate to them about what's really going on here. You probably have a team based all over South-east Asia and you can’t talk to them either about your problems, because you’re supposed to be the strong one who drives the team.”
“It may be worse for you if you’re a man because men aren’t encouraged to speak openly. Women find it easier to share their problems with close friends, but men tend to suffer in silence. They have invested so much in the job and made huge sacrifices to be successful, and the last thing they want is to booted out of the job on the grounds that they’re mentally unfit.”
DATA IS SCARCE
Experts say there is scarce data on how many senior executives suffer from loneliness, depression or anxiety. A 2016 general study by the Institute of Mental Health published in 2018 showed that one in seven people in Singapore experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.
But when EGN Singapore, a business networking platform for leaders and specialists, conducted a small-sample survey among its members here, it found that 30 per cent of senior executives have undergone bouts of depression – higher than the national average cited above – while over 80 per cent of them are reluctant to discuss the state of their mental health with their companies.
When Mr Jonsson’s friend Simon Greaves, the director of a Singapore executive search firm, took his own life in 2019, his brother told Mr Jonsson that Mr Greaves had been facing depression. “And yet all of his friends remembered him as being fun, outgoing and competent at his job,” says Mr Jonsson. It was Mr Greaves’ death that pushed Mr Jonsson to go public with his own mental health issues, posting personal revelations of his struggles on his LinkedIn profile.
Mr Jonsson cites well-loved public figures who commited suicide – such as fashion designer Kate Spade, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, comedian Robin Williams and coffee chain tycoon VG Siddhartha – as proof that money, power and public veneration are no buffers against depression. “If you don’t have someone you can open up to and pour out all your emotions, you’ll be in a dangerous position,” says Mr Jonsson.
Ms Micha notes: “Singapore decriminalised suicide in May 2019 – which was the right thing to do. For years, I would get calls from potential clients who ask: ‘If I tell you I have suicidal thoughts, would you report me?’ Even when I answer, ‘No, never’, they were still afraid… If Singapore wants to maintain its position as a business hub, it must also lead the way in corporate mental health.”
MENTAL HEALTH FOR ALL
Although Ms Micha, Mr Jonsson and EGN are mostly looking at mental issues among men and women at the top, other health experts insist the issue affects all levels of a corporation.
Priyanka Bajpai, regional head, Southeast Asia, of healthcare communications firm SPAG, says: “Mental health is not bound by hierarchy, and anyone is susceptible to issues such as loneliness, anxiety and depression. The pressure to create a brand for oneself and one’s company, to engage in social media and stay publicly visible, to fulfill KPIs and other measures of success, all bear upon the individual.
“Hence, it’s not so much a function of leadership, but the expectation of the individual from themselves, as well as how they manage and perform, while still maintaining sanity in pressure situations. In fact, one could argue that millennials face a greater pressure to project a certain image of corporate success on social media, whereas older executives are more secure of their track record and have their coping strategies in place.
“The pressures we face are inevitably part and parcel of our contemporary lifestyles today, but the degree to which we prioritize our mental health is the degree to which we can improve and work upon it.”
Both Ms Bajpai and Ms Micha note that more organisations are recognising the importance of mental health and reaching out to experts. The National Council of Social Service has a Mental Health Toolkit For Employers that provides resources for employers to support employee mental health. Many companies are teaching employees to reach out to a colleague empathetically when they spot warning signs, such as alcoholism, excessive weight gain and despondency.
But mental health programmes looking specifically at C-suite struggles are less common, because senior execs prefer to conceal them from staff and shareholders. As Ms Micha put it: “Companies really need to look deeper at the issue if they want to improve their KPIs and increase their sales. Any financial investment in staff counselling will pay back in spades. When an executive is free from the hormones of stress, that’s when they can be creative and innovate, seek solutions that were not visible before, and take the company to a higher level. Companies must remove the stigma of anxiety, depression and mental illness, so employees feel safe speaking about their problems.”
"A friend asked me out for a birthday lunch. When I arrived there were a dozen of my friends there. They didn't get me a present, but they all each put in S$100 in an envelope and gave me $1,500 or so. It's not the money, of course, that mattered. It's the gesture that moved me."
Confessions of a local ex-CEO
I’m Singaporean and for 14 years I built an F&B company that expanded from Singapore into China. I’ve been lauded as a model entrepreneur and featured in newspapers and magazines many times. I had operations in Singapore, Shanghai and Beijing. When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, triggering the Great Financial Crisis, my company lost 50 percent of our sales (which per month averaged S$450,000) for nine months.
Out of desperation, we sold the company, lock, stock and barrel, to a competitor. I had hoped they’d keep me, but they didn’t. Soon after that, I went into a spiral.
My wife divorced me within a month, though fortunately we didn’t have kids and she didn’t ask for maintenance. I fell sick and had to stay out of the public eye for months. The phone stopped ringing, and the only people knocking on my door were debt collectors.
When your business fails, people don’t remember the 10 good things you did before that – like supporting young entrepreneurs or helping the country’s F&B industry develop – they just remember that your business failed. You go into a tailspin, and suicidal thoughts emerge. I fantasised many times about jumping off my building, because I was so depressed. But luckily there were moments of grace that saved me.
I remember a friend who came by and we didn’t talk the whole night – we just watched soccer. I don’t even like soccer, but I stared at the TV screen for 45 minutes, because I was just happy to be sitting next to my friend, who cared enough to just spend time with me. There’s no judgment – that was important.
Another time, a friend asked me out for a birthday lunch. When I arrived there were a dozen of my friends there. They didn’t get me a present, but they all each put in S$100 in an envelope and gave me $1,500 or so. It’s not the money, of course, that mattered. It’s the gesture that moved me.
Eventually I met a single mother with two kids. Kids, if you don’t already know, are great. They don’t judge you at all. I played with them when I was there. And I slowly realised there were so many things in life besides career success. And I began to pick myself up and rebuild my life. I’m in my early 50s now and starting a new business. It’ll take me some years to grow this one. But, as they say, baby steps.
When you’re down and out, you’re too depressed to save yourself. The only thing that can save you is human connection. I hope people reading remember that when someone is depressed, it’s up to them to reach out and show compassion to the person. They don’t have to say anything smart or insightful. Just visit the person and be present – that’s enough. That might save that person’s life.
“Fortunately I have a good wife who was observing everything that was going on. It was she who pulled me out of it – as things were going south very quickly.”
Confessions of an expat ex-BDM
I’m from Germany and I worked as the Business Development Manager for an oil-and-gas service company in Singapore from 2014 to 2017. It was a fairly new company and I had poured all my savings into it. We thought we would sell it later for a lot of money, which would then be our nest egg. I brought my wife and three children to Singapore, having sold everything we had in Germany.
When the O&G market collapsed in 2015, the interested party who wanted to buy our company backed out, our Chinese partner backed out, and we were facing US$3 million in debt, with no revenue coming in. We could not fix the problems because it was an industry-wide downturn. It was mayhem.
For much of 2016, I was still going into the office, but I didn’t have anything to do. I was anxious and distracted all the time. Even when there were potential opportunities or silver linings, the fear of failure overwhelmed me. I kept thinking I had failed my wife and children. My boss had properties and some inheritance money, so he couldn’t really understand what I was going through. We would hang out after work and drink. But that became a spiral that got progressively darker.
Fortunately I have a good wife who was observing everything that was going on. It was she who pulled me out of it – as things were going south very quickly. When I felt guilty about bringing the family here, she said this was their choice as much as it was mine. She never made me feel bad about myself.
When the company was bought over by a rival, I made many attempts at get another job elsewhere, but they came to naught. I have only an Employment Pass, and companies didn’t want the hassle of the handling my paperwork. Again my wife came to the rescue, helping me make the decision to start my own events consultancy firm here. Even though she had not worked a day since we got married, she started working everyday with this startup.
Meanwhile, the friends I thought I had had stopped talking to me. They were friendly as long as I had a job and money. But the moment I lost those things, they ceased to care. I imagine that if I was a single expatriate man going through this alone, I might have done something drastic to myself.
My advice to any single expat is to just pack up and go home to the people you love, because they’re the only ones who can help you through this. If you don’t, you may end up looking for sympathy or escape in all the wrong places, and it’ll only get you into more trouble. Without the right support system when things go south, you will be in for a very rough ride.