On Friday, September 2nd, Bed Bath & Beyond's Chief Financial Officer, Gustavo Arnal, passed away after jumping from New York City’s "Jenga Tower" building. This news came shortly after the company prepared to sell 12 million common shares in a desperate move to liquidate. Further, Mr. Arnal was intertwined in a "pump and dump" scandal, which involved him and other BB&B executives being named in a class action lawsuit filed on August 23. While we cannot enter into Arnal’s mindset in making this decision, one might assume the failing financial status of Bed Bath & Beyond took a toll on him as CFO. Those close to him, such as a former coworker from Avon who saw him a few weeks before his death, claimed that his stress levels were clear when speaking with him. I do not wish to speculate any further on Mr. Arnal, but instead would like to point to the institutions that make tragedies like this more likely, and what can be done to change the system.
The links between suicide and occupation are not new; the two have a long, intertwined history. This relationship was highlighted by Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman play, which details the story of a father facing the reality of his distance from his family and his declining career, ultimately leading to his suicide. Nor is this a US-specific issue; Japan’s suicide rate of 30,000 victims per year for the past decade has been linked to a capitalistic focus on "over-responsibility, perfectionism, and sustained social pressure to outperform". This topic is growing in importance in the US, with workplace suicide rates up a staggering 39% since 2000. The issue was receiving media attention in January 2020, but soon fell from the headlines with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as workers return to the office, work-related suicides like Mr. Arnal’s have become more apparent. I believe that American work conditions and attitudes have had huge impacts on the mental health of workers, resulting in this rise.
The response to Mr. Arnal’s death gives a glimpse into the attitudes that influence American work culture. On September 4th, Forbes released an article titled "Death of Bed Bath & Beyond CFO Creates New Crisis for Company". This title alludes to the manner in which workers are seen as extensions of their companies, instead of human beings. The American "live to work" instead of "work to live" mentality has permeated every level of life, even the response to death. Americans are expected to give as much as possible to their careers, with 1 in 4 US workers receiving no paid vacation days and new mothers receiving only 12 unpaid weeks of maternity leave. I believe that these conditions are the product of a larger obsession with work, what some call the "grind culture". Americans seem to see their worth in the work they produce, instead of in their families, their hobbies, and their individual traits. Further, this is an issue that pertains to Boston College students in ways we cannot yet imagine. Each year, BC sends roughly 2,000 students into the workforce. In the case of the Class of 2021, 20% of students went on to work in real estate or financial services, while 12% entered business services, consulting, or management. What is the state of this corporate world that they're entering? What will their work-life balance look like? If they are recruited as investment bankers, work weeks could reach 100 hours, with weekend hours as the expectation instead of the exception. Or, might they be accused of the newest trend, "quiet quitting", which accuses burnt-out workers of subscribing to a "bare-minimum" philosophy? These concerns extend beyond business as well. The Connell School of Nursing has 427 undergraduates. Will they also be exposed to the staffing shortages, burnout, and exacerbated mental health problems that contributed to 27-year-old nurse Michael Odell’s suicide?
This is not a problem that is easily addressed; it permeates deep into American culture. Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine a world in which corporations willingly give up productivity in order to encourage the mental health of their employees. Instead, I would urge that the federal government step up in defense of the American people. Americans need fair wages, paid time off, and better mental health protection. Just because we are used to a certain work culture does not mean things have to remain the same. Although we cannot save Mr. Arnal, we can step up for the next generation of workers with a response that treats them as human beings instead of as a source of profits for their companies.
Boston College provides services for students struggling with mental health or suicidal thoughts. University Health Services encourages anyone experiencing distress or wanting an opportunity to process their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to seek individual and/or group support from them, either by dropping by their offices (Gasson 001) or calling them at 617-552-3310. Remember, you are not alone.