Friday 12 July 2019 12:39 AM UTC
LONDON July 12: Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org in the UK.
Gabe MacConaill was working on a life-defining case. The 42-year-old junior partner at global law firm Sidley Austin had been put on the bankruptcy of a company called Mattress Firm. The process was complicated and multipronged, taking 41 subsidiaries down with it.
In the months leading up to the bankruptcy filing in October 2018, many people surrounding MacConaill noticed he was isolating himself. He closed his office door more often. His friends rarely saw him.
He worried aloud to his wife, Joanna Litt, that he didn’t have enough debtor experience and would be sued for malpractice.
MacConaill stopped sleeping regularly. He stopped laughing and going to the gym. At one point, Litt suggested he see a therapist but he told her he could barely get his work done, let alone find time to start counselling. Later, later, he promised her. After the filing.
But as the date got closer, MacConaill began to break down. He told his wife that he believed his body was failing him but feared that if his bosses saw weakness, it would be the end of his career.
A heart-attack scare sent him to the emergency room but he powered on, gathering his energy to fly to Delaware and file the case. He came home. Litt thought they had made it through.
A week later, MacConaill died by suicide in the parking lot of his law firm.
“So many things happened that created this perfect storm, but the slightest thing could have saved my husband,” Litt tells us in the Los Angeles home that she and MacConaill shared, her mother in a chair beside her.
The house is modern and immaculate, covered in flowered vines and surrounded by lemon trees. It is up for sale. Litt can’t imagine living there without MacConaill.
Last October, she published a letter in American Lawyer magazine called “Big Law Killed My Husband”. It was shared widely within the legal world.
We are sitting in her living room because Litt believes MacConaill’s story holds lessons for leaders, legislators and companies across the world.
Though the causes of suicide are always complex, experts say that the 21st-century workplace can exacerbate issues that lead to it, such as overwork, burnout and depression.
Litt says that MacConaill lacked essential coping mechanisms and had an occasional problem with binge drinking. There was a history of mental illness in his maternal family line, though she had never seen signs of it in him before.
But as she wrote in her letter, “These influences [were] coupled with a high-pressure job and a culture where it’s shameful to ask for help, shameful to be vulnerable, and shameful not to be perfect.”
Experts in workplace psychology overwhelmingly agree that burnout is a growing public health crisis. In December, Ryan Keith Wallace, a 27-year-old associate at a Houston law firm, died by suicide after a particularly stressful day, his death a total shock to those who knew him.
“I sit here and blame myself every day and wonder what I lacked as a wife to not help him,” says his widow, Kyrie Cameron. “But the truth is he was just so happy until he felt that pressure. It seemed like work was at least the trigger for him.”
Cameron, who is also a lawyer, believes that her husband’s perfectionist personality and fear of failure was so daunting to him that he didn’t feel he had another way out. “Our profession has lost perspective,” she says.
“We think being a lawyer defines us. That success means being the highest- billing, highest-earning, most productive person there at the expense of taking care of ourselves. That we can’t show vulnerability or reach out for help.”
Fields such as law, finance and consulting seem particularly prone to intense, demanding workplace cultures but the issue affects people in all sectors.
One doctor dies by suicide every day in the US. Stress, depression or anxiety account for 44 per cent of all work-related ill-health cases in Britain, and 57 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health, according to the government’s health and safety executive.
FT readers shared concerns about the big four issues: overwork, cultural stigmas, pressure from the top and a fear of being stigmatised
When the FT set out to investigate this issue, we asked readers to describe how their employers handle mental health issues, including stress, burnout, anxiety and depression.
More than 450 people responded from 43 countries. Although they were a self-selecting group, their responses were significant: the majority felt unsupported, alienated or discriminated against on the basis of their mental health.
Two-thirds believed their work had a somewhat to extremely negative effect on their health, and 44 per cent said they did not think mental health was taken seriously by their organisation.
Half said they either didn’t know where at work to go, or had nowhere to go if they needed support.
Even as many companies strengthen their policies to close the gender pay gap and end sexual harassment, mental wellbeing often remains an afterthought.
“This is not about buying Fitbits for employees and teaching them deep breathing so we can pile on more work,” says Donna Hardaker, a workplace mental health specialist at Sutter Health, a not-for-profit healthcare network.
“You must address the micro and the macro. There is a deeply entrenched cultural idea that workplaces are fine; it’s the employees who are the problem.
But employers have a social responsibility to not be harming the people who are working within their walls.”
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