Mental Health Is Still A Taboo In Most Workplaces – These Big City Firms Want To Change That

By George Bowden

Oliver Spratt found himself in a hectic period at work – perhaps nothing out of the ordinary for a newly-qualified lawyer in a big city firm. But the extra demands he found himself under crashed headfirst into a poor sleeping pattern. Problems at home mounted up, and it wasn’t long before he felt he’d reached breaking point.

“It was the 15th of April, I remember, and I had not slept well,” Spratt says. “I remember increasingly feeling physically unwell. It got to the point in the afternoon that day that I had to just say to my boss that I needed to go home and that I wasn’t feeling well. I got home and for the first time, I broke down in tears and there was nothing I could do to stem the flow.”

Spratt assumed he was suffering from a virus, but a doctor ruled that out. She suggested Spratt’s mood might be a cause for concern. “I hadn’t contemplated that this might have been a mental illness,” he says. “I had never questioned that mental illness was a real thing, but I certainly didn’t think it would be something I would ever be impacted by.”

After a quick referral to a psychologist, Spratt was diagnosed with a major depressive episode and prominent anxiety. It came as a shock. And then he had to reveal the extent of the situation to his bosses at his law firm, Hogan Lovells, for the first time, after he had told them he’d been hit by a sick bug. “The next morning I emailed two [of the firm’s] partners and said I hadn’t been entirely honest,” he says. “I told them the diagnosis, that the psychiatrist had said I should take some time off and that I didn’t know how long it was going to be.”

Lawyer Oliver Spratt felt supported by his bosses at a big city
Lawyer Oliver Spratt felt supported by his bosses at a big city firm.

While Spratt felt he had no option but to be honest with his bosses about his illness, new research shared with HuffPost UK shows that for many staff, mental health remains something they do not feel comfortable to talk about. Despite some 32% of adults saying they have suffered from mental health problems whilst working, 49% do not feel there is an appropriate culture in their workplace to enable people to open up about their mental wellbeing, a recent study of 2,000 Britons for the counselling app Mynurva found.

The same survey showed 54% are not aware of any formal support structures within their organisation to help with their mental health symptoms. The figures chime with a 2017 government study into workplace mental health, which found 300,000 people with long-term mental health problems lose their jobs each year, and that 15% of people at work at any one time have symptoms of a mental health condition. Mynurva’s co-founder, Dr Zain Sikafi, who also works as a GP, says more and more patients are presenting symptoms of mental ill health, a trend he describes as a “flood”. “An increasing number of people are coming to their GP with these types of problems,” he says.

It’s a reality that keeps Poppy Jaman determined to achieve her vision. The 42-year-old is chief executive of the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA), an organisation that counts City stalwarts and banking brands among its members. “Deloitte, EY, Lloyds, HSBC,” Jaman rounds off a list of familiar names. “All of them are making mental health a boardroom agenda.” Despite competing over billion pound deals and client contracts, the companies are increasingly working together to share best practice around mental health in the workplace. For Jaman, the human cost of mental health is something any firm hoping to make a profit simply can’t ignore. “If you were losing five million pounds because your IT didn’t work in a bank, what would you do?” she asks. “You’d get a consultant in and you’d spend £2m to fix that problem. I don’t see why mental health is any different.”

According to figures compiled by CMHA member Deloitte, the annual cost to employers of mental ill-health is between £33 billion and £42 billion, a tab racked up through a combination of sick days, “presenteeism” – where unwell workers struggle through to the end of the working day – and staff turnover. “Every board member should be mental health literate in this country,” Jaman says. “If people in very senior roles, or just any roles in the organisation, are stressed, you make poor decisions. We have data from the banking standards board and other organisations to demonstrate that people in stressful situations make poor decisions. And if that isn’t the case for change, I don’t know what is.”

The CMHA was founded in the wake of the 2008-9 Financial Crisis, which saw thousands of City workers lose employment almost overnight. “When you looked at the people who were dying by suicide there was a lot in London and there was a very strong correlation to the financial crisis – people being out of work, men particularly not being able to talk about it,” Jaman says. “The whole stigma relating to failure, weakness – and so people in the City started to say ‘what are we going to do about this?’. There was a reputational issue here, there was clearly a bottom line issue.”

Poppy Jaman is working to develop best practice among big City firms with a view to publishing results...
Poppy Jaman is working to develop best practice among big City firms with a view to publishing results for all organisations to view.

The organisation has grown at the same time as openness and acceptance of mental health has increased. Many credit the younger royals, including Prince William and Kate Middleton, with helping to bring the issue into the mainstream. Yet, as the survey results show, workplaces still have a way to go.

“Sometimes I think ‘oh, our job’s done’ – then someone says something that makes my blood boil and I think we’re a long way from done,” Jaman says. “You meet someone and they say ‘I had a colleague who ran rings round me and I’m sure it was their mental health issues… but did they really have them anyway?’”

She describes mental health as an “everybody issue”. “Until all of us understand that it is an everybody issue, I’m not going to feel like we’ve got to a place in a society where we’ve got equality,” Jaman says. “That’s the big vision. So that we all roll our eyes because we’ve all heard it before. For it to become so ingrained and so normal that mental health is just part and parcel of everything. That’s where we need to get to.”

HSBC hired me six months after I was in the Priory” – Brian HeyworthBrian Heyworth, HSBC

In interviews, City workers in law firms, banking and accountancy, and at all levels from vice-presidents to associates, say they have been surprised by the amount of support they have received after disclosing mental health problems. It’s worth noting that those HuffPost spoke to have had largely positive experiences which, studies suggest, may not reflect the reality for many staff. As ever, with stories such as this, the silence of those people who feel they are unable to discuss their mental health issues is instructive in itself.

Yet, looking back now, Brian Heyworth considers himself very fortunate. “HSBC hired me six months after I was in the Priory,” he says. “I was very, very lucky. I remember in the darkest days, not wanting to be too dramatic, but in the hospital, on suicide watch, I remember my psychiatrist saying ‘you are very ill, this is very serious… but if you do what I say, not only will you recover, but your experience of life will be very different than it has been’. That has been my experience. It’s not just about getting better, it’s that the experience of living is completely different from the period before.”

In retrospect, Heyworth, now 53, can see how problems in his early life had gone unnoticed and untreated. “When I look back even as a teenager I was clearly anxious, worried and life was a struggle. I was self-medicating,” he says. “The best metaphor I can think of is if you’re shortsighted and you’re sort of stumbling around you get used to it and you can manage – you don’t realise how shortsighted you are until you get 20-20 vision. And then you realise the difference.”

Heyworth is now the global head of client services for HSBC in London. His move to the bank, so quickly after his illness saw him hospitalised, strikes him now as being the result of a forward thinking management team who considered the issue on a par with a physical problem. “The discussion was simple – it was ‘are you getting better? Can you do the job?’. Very quickly, their attitude was, ‘when we’re hiring senior bankers, most people have got issues or background or problems’. It was incredibly healthy and ahead of its time,” he says. “Looking back, recovery is not linear. I was excited, relieved I had come through this dark period. I thought at the time that it was unlikely I’d ever work again let alone come back into a big role at a very prestigious organisation. So there was a mixture of relief, excitement and a certain amount of trepidation about a new job and whether I could cope.”

Today, Heyworth is on the board of the CMHA and speaks candidly to his peers about his own experience. “If you have 235,000 employees we can do anything to improve their health and mental health,” he says. “We’ll be able to perform better, communicate better, interact with clients better, respond more quickly and why don’t we compete around making our workplaces as healthy as possible, rather than about our digital proposition or our foreign exchange franchise. But this isn’t either/or – it’s all part of a healthy company.”

HSBC has embraced a so-called “healthiest human system”, which its chief executive John Flint has said will encourage openness, meritocracy and transparency at the 154-year-old firm. Yet it seems Flint’s City peers may need more convincing of the effort’s value. At a presentation last year unveiling the initiative, veteran bankers openly grumbled and mocked the strategy, according to the Financial Times. Nonetheless, the idea excites Heyworth, who points out what he sees as obvious business benefits.

“[Flint] believes passionately that he as chief executive has a duty of care for his employees but also that the healthier his workforce is the more likely we are to achieve our strategic goals and that is a very, to me, incredibly exciting direction,” Heyworth says. And he adds another benefit – placing health and mental wellbeing at the core of its strategy could see big banks, much maligned by the general public, begin to contribute in other ways to society. “This is not just plucked out, this is a cultural shift.”

I used to hide in the toilets and have panic attacks”Beth Robotham, Goldman Sachs

HSBC isn’t the only major global bank pursuing solutions to mental ill-health among its workforce. At Amercian giant Goldman Sachs, Beth Robotham is helping lead the firm’s response to growing understanding of how mental health can impact business objectives.

“I think people have always understood the relationship between wellbeing and performance, but what we understand better now is that we have to signal to people that it’s OK to talk about and OK to ask for help,” she says. “We still have significant work to do as an industry, as a City and a country. But progress is being made.” Goldman Sachs has invested in a “broad range” of on-site services for staff in its London office including psychologists and mental health first aiders, Robotham, 35, says. “I think that we need to push this movement into action.”

Recalling her own experiences, for Robotham it was actually a series of positive events that appeared to trigger symptoms of mental ill-health. “I had just been promoted and was given great recognition at work. I was getting married so was very excited about that but I just found my anxiety symptoms were extremely high,” she recalls. “I was starting to put a lot of pressure on myself. I was very afraid to share my experience with anyone because I felt like it would look like I couldn’t cope. I was worried that people would take things off me, or pare the wedding down. I didn’t feel comfortable to speak about my mental health because nobody in the City was talking about it at that stage. I couldn’t see someone that was successful that had spoken about their symptoms of mental health and that kept me quiet.”

“I used to hide in the toilets and have panic attacks and go back to my desk and not say anything to anyone. That sort of fear of people finding out and that stigma has been a huge personal driver for me to make sure that people don’t feel that way,” she says. “If I had been able to talk about it sooner, I’d have been able to access a broad range of support that would have been available to me. Everyone I spoke to at my firm was hugely supportive but I waited too long. My health deteriorated as a result.” Robotham says that perceptions have changed a great deal since then. “I think there is a much better understanding that for you to maximise the talent in your organisation you need to think about skills and training but also about wellbeing,” she says, offering an explanation for Goldman’s investment in on-site support.

The recent rise in students seeking help for mental health problems whilst at university has led to graduates seeking City careers to “go back into the mental health closet”, Robotham says. “We had some graduates talk about their experiences of mental health in the workplace and one of those individuals talked about ‘going back into the closet’ from a mental health perspective when they came into work. They were very open at university, coming into the workplace, they weren’t sure that it was OK to talk about this. So they took their time to assess ‘would my manager be supportive’ and ‘how does the organisation think about this’,” she says. “And then they were able to start to share their experiences with people. They reported they had a really positive experience when they spoke to their manager and when they spoke to their team. But they kept quiet for some time before they did.” Yet, for Robotham, staff shouldn’t feel the need to speak out about their health at work. “It’s a very private, personal decision,” she says. “It is the responsibility of employers to send the signals that it’s safe and a supportive environment where you can talk about your mental health.”

Despite the national picture of unease around mental health at work, for Oliver Spratt, now 34 and a senior associate at his firm, the response from his managers to his circumstances couldn’t have been more positive and helpful. Soon after his return some months later, he noticed a change in how the whole topic of mental health was discussed. “Really at the time I got back to work, Hogan Lovells were genuinely pushing mental health as something that needs to be spoken about increasingly honestly and it must have been around that time that we recruited a full-time in-house counsellor.”

For Jaman, there’s an awareness that big City firms have the resources to take risks and see what works – and what doesn’t – in terms of helping staff with their mental wellbeing. “I feel like we’ve only just started the journey with the big names and those with the resources. That was a conscious decision because they have the resources to try things out and give to the rest of society. [The big businesses] are influencers,” she says. “You’ve got big brand and big names making change and influencing the rest of society. Then when we learn what works we can publish it.”

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