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Depression among CEOs


You won’t find the answer to life’s problems in analysis. … Or by making lists of the pros and cons.

So you have everything – you have it all .. figured out and achieved all your goals, met your targets, worked hard and reached the pinnacle of success most only dream about – YOU – are one of the youngest CEOs to run a Fortune 500 company. You actually have the world at your feet!

But …                                                       you are NOT happy. Really?! In fact there comes this wave of anxiety and where you aught to be feeling elated, when you are chosen for the big C position, you feel almost ‘let down”. While earlier promotions did give you some satisfaction, suddenly you are feeling nothing – EMPTY might be the closest to describing this feeling. You find yourself unable to sleep well and continue working into the night. Ofcourse everyone knows you are a workaholic – how could it be any other way to reach the top?

And one fine day, you wake up with the thought that there is no point to your living… “maybe if I wasn’t here anymore … the world would be a better place without me.” This was what went through Philip Burguieres’s mind when, at the height of his professional success, facing a different leadership role, all he felt was severe anxiety and insomnia.

Philip J. Burguieres, distinguished as one of the nation’s youngest CEOs of a Fortune 500 company, began leading Cameron Iron Works when he was just 35. Within 20 years, and by the age of 53, Burguieres had built his second Fortune 500 company, Weatherford International, into a major force in the oil services industry. With an impressive career graph, holding principal positions for several large companies, who would have suspected a man such as him to be going through such overwhelming sadness.

Yet here he was, in the back of his chauffeur-driven car on the way to the air-port on July 30, 1996 feeling an all-time low as he turned to the business sections of The Wall Street Journal and The Houston Chronicle. He was on the cover of both,” for two reasons alone – he’d abruptly taken leave of absence from Weatherford, and because its’ stocks had subsequently nosedived by 10 per cent. “It was the end of my life as I knew it,” he recalls. “From a business standpoint, it was, ‘This guy has failed’.” He was on the way to Menninger, an elite psychiatric clinic in Kansas.

Philip Burguieres like many of his tribe, namely, the C-suite, was going through and experiencing one of the worlds biggest killers – the big D – DEPRESSION.

His wife seemed to think it was plain old “stress due to work” and believed it would pass like it had in the past. He went to a psychiatrist who named it “situational depression”. One doctor told him to take a vacation since it was probably only “stress”. Perhaps it may have helped someone else, but Philip knew it was not just the job pressure. He just knew he couldn’t continue working in his position as CEO. But if he left, his life as he knew it would be over. This conflict was the worst he had faced in his life and he didnt quite know why.

Unable to talk about his depression in a professional setting, because it “seemed like admitting to weakness, or failing” and fearing the stigma around mental health problems, he had resigned. The press wrote that the reason behind his resignation was “health reasons,” with some more detailed reports indicating that his departure was “stress-related.” He presented his board of directors with a doctor’s notice stating he was suffering some sort of chemical imbalance in the brain that required six months to cure.

Initially he hoped to find the “magic pill” or a quick solution. It was a challenge for someone who really had not failed at anything before. Little did he know it would be a two-year battle to recover completely. He checked into the mental health clinic, was put on seven kinds of anti-depressants. Nothing helped. He was convinced he would never be a contributory member of society again.

He shares that it was more than six months down the line, that he actually felt he got the energy to go out on his own and walk around his block. During this time, one evening, he met an old acquaintance of his, John Sage at a restaurant where he and his wife were dining. John happened to be going through the same phase of depression. They both shared their respective conditions and decided to become a support buddy of sorts – get well team, to each other – talking daily and meeting several times a week. This seemed to help tremendously.

Eventually Philip came to the point where as part of helping himself, he realized that focusing on others and helping people seemed to alleviate his sense of emptiness. In his own words “If you are busy helping other people, it’s more difficult to be depressed. Reaching out to others, flipping my viewpoint, has made all the difference for me.”

When asked what was his and perhaps other executives’ greatest barrier to seeking professional help, Philip honestly points out that the stigma associated with depression, is the main reason. He estimates 50% of CEOs at some point in their lives, experience depression. He receive calls about it daily, and at least twice a week meets CEOs who are struggling or have struggled with depression. In his own words “But it’s still such a secret. And why? Every time I read in the newspaper that somebody has left a corporation for ‘health reasons’ I know exactly what it is: it’s depression.”

While depression is faced by most humans at some point in their lives, the pressures a CEO faces as well as a workaholic predisposition makes them particularly susceptible. It’s hard for CEOs who suffer from depression due to the backlash of stigma involved around it. They’ve got these huge responsibilities, and they’re making millions a year. They can’t just quit, and they shouldn’t.

However, what can help is an honest admission of what one is going through and this can only come with AWARENESS – first you need to be aware of your feelings of sadness. And THEN, taking the next steps towards handling it may appear – making it the difference between a downward dip towards extinction and rising to find a greater meaning to your life. If you or anyone you know is going through such a phase in their lives, don’t wait – TAKE THAT FIRST STEP !

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