I believe mental health is the last great taboo in business and breaking it is central to creating a more prosperous and resilient society. If we fail then people will continue to suffer in silence. They will continue to fall back on the ever present self-destructive ‘coping devices’ of alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling and eating disorders, the constant siren calls of all high pressure environments. The City is no exception.
In many business sectors and particularly in my own – within the City – employees still fear that if they talk about their mental health then their boss will think they lack ambition. Some may even fear losing their job. The stigma around mental health in big business is symptomatic of a macho culture where ignorance and bias still exist and that’s got to change.
I’ve had my own mental health issues in life, which stem from my childhood and it took me two decades to seek help. I struggled with PTSD, flashbacks and anxiety for two decades before the pain of continuing in silence became greater than my fear of reprisal. At times I struggle still, but no longer do I feel isolated in that struggle, I can talk about it and I want everyone in my firm to know that they can do so too.
Destigmatising mental health requires cultural change in business. That can be challenging in industries like financial services that are characteristically high performance, target-driven places. I often joke that business leaders in the square mile won’t improve the well-being of their people until they see it measured on a chart, but there’s probably some truth in that.
But connecting wellbeing with business performance might in fact be a good catalyst for change. There is data that suggests measurable improvements in staff wellbeing do indeed translate into better business performance. Research from Accenture of 2,170 working adults across the UK revealed that two-thirds have personally experienced mental health challenges. It showed that when employees are unable to talk about mental health issues at work, it reduces productivity by 27 percent. But when employees feel the environment allows them to talk openly about mental health, productivity increases by 19 percent. That’s a 46 percent productivity upside.
Work-related mental health issues are often related to a stressful ‘lights always on’ culture, a bi-product of a success-at-all-costs philosophy. But a culture of cut-throat competitiveness that views burnout as a benchmark of dedication is unsustainable, unacceptable and quite frankly pathetic.
A workplace culture that pressures employees to hide mental health issues is toxic and has the potential to do enormous damage not just to those employees but to the business itself.
I have always worked in teams full of highly intelligent people. While they are driven and competitive, the very best performing teams I’ve ever worked in have also been open and supportive.
Sadly this is not universally the case.
Research in 2018 from the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment, the professional body for those working in wealth management and capital markets, revealed only 46 percent of financial services staff would be confident talking to managers about mental ill health. Of the 3,686 respondents, 23 percent said they were unsure and 31 percent said they were not confident talking to their managers if they felt they were suffering from stress, anxiety or depression. I believe this boils down to a fear of showing vulnerability. And in the alpha culture of big business, vulnerability is often mistaken for weakness. Regrettably, I think the same is often true when it comes to stigma around physical disability or admitting to feeling bullied or harassed at work.
For our businesses to flourish we have to let our people know that it is okay to not be okay, and that admitting you need support won’t be held against you.