Judd Turner ate, lived, and breathed his job. A midlevel marketing analyst in his early 40s, he threw himself into every undertaking. He was pleased when Wallace, the Senior VP for Marketing, selected him to develop the marketing plan for a new product that was anticipated to be the company’s profit leader within three years. The challenges were enormous; the expectations for success were high. He knew this project would make or break his career.
For four months Turner worked on the project nearly every minute he was awake. He went to bed thinking about the plan and woke up with it on his mind. Except for sleep, his effort was 24/7. His wife, Gina, had never seen him work this much or this hard. Slowly his behavior changed. He grew emotionally distant. Bottles of scotch disappeared more quickly. Gina thought, “I will be so thankful when this is over and I can have my husband back.” But this was not to be.
Turner kept the Senior VP for Marketing in the loop as the plan developed. The Senior VP had nothing but praise for Turner’s work. Finally he told Turner, “This is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I think we’re ready to take this to the CEO. Great work, Judd.”
The meeting with the CEO and senior staff was arranged. Turner presented the plan. But the meeting did not go as anticipated. From the start it was clear the CEO did not understand how the plan would achieve the marketing goals. Turner did his best but the CEO just didn’t get it. Turner kept waiting for the Senior VP for Marketing to jump in and help him out. He knew Wallace understood the plan and thought it was great.
Finally the CEO, exasperated, said, “OK, that’s enough. I don’t see anything here worth pursuing. This plan just stinks. What do you think, Wallace?” Without hesitating, the Senior VP for Marketing replied, “Yes, sir. Pretty smelly. I should have given Turner more guidance. We’ll regroup and get someone else on it immediately.”
Shock. Absolute shock. Turner could barely breathe. His superior had not supported him. He had in fact betrayed him. As Turner walked back to his office, replaying the past few minutes in his mind, he felt the air being squeezed out of him. Months of giving everything to the company. Years of dedicated service. It was over. It was all over. Pain, emptiness, failure. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe. Turner opened the window in his office on the 23rd floor -- and stepped through it into eternity.
News of Turner’s suicide stunned the organization. Those who knew him were incredulous. Turner was so level-headed, such a normal guy. What could have happened? The signs were there. The lack of sleep. The abuse of alcohol. The emotional detachment. Turner was in the most stressful work of his life – and it got to him. He didn’t manage the stress. He was stressed out long before the fateful meeting with the CEO. But when his superior did not back him -- but instead left him standing all alone -- the thread that held Turner to reality snapped. A darkness deep and vast came over him and took him away.
Over a career you will work with co-workers with a variety of stress-related ailments from backaches, to hypertension, to headaches, to depression. Sometimes you will know about these ailments but other times you will not. Work-related stress may play out in our private lives, such as through drug abuse, legal or illegal. You may develop stress-related problems yourself. Some people die from stress-related coronary diseases. The Japanese have a word for death from work, karoshi.
As leaders we should be sensitive as possible to the stressors affecting our followers. Where possible, we should reduce workplace norms or change behaviors that are dysfunctional. We should create a caring, supportive culture where people are truly valued. A little stress is OK; but too much stress is a problem.
© John Ballard, PhD, 2015. All rights reserved.
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