A healthy approach

When it comes to poor mental health, financial services professionals are one of the worst affected groups. How can the sector start out on the road to recovery?
by Alexander Garrett


In 2006, at the age of 40, Brian Heyworth had a breakdown. One moment, he gave every outward sign of being the successful banker, functioning normally. The next, he remembers, “I literally collapsed in the office, then I was in tears with the HR department, and the next day I was in hospital.”

In fact, Brian had been suffering mental health problems since he was 12 or 13 years old, fearing that he was dying of cancer and then of AIDS, but never asking for help. During his thirties, he had two bouts of depression, “probably catalysed by work stress”, but bounced back after receiving antidepressants from his GP. He gave little clue to his colleagues that anything was wrong.

What’s remarkable is that, when the breakdown came, after spending two months in the Priory Hospital and another couple of months recovering with family, HSBC offered him a top job as head of global markets sales EMEA, in full knowledge of his medical record. “Stuart Gulliver, who was then CEO of the bank’s Global Banking and Markets division, asked me two questions,” says Brian. “‘Are you OK?’ and ‘Can you do the job?’”

Today, Brian is HSBC Global Asset Management’s global head of client strategy and an evangelist for good mental health in the workplace. He’s just taken on the role of chair at the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA), a body whose vision is to help people at all levels in the City of London talk about mental health without fear of stigma. It was founded by and is a coalition of City businesses. In his own case, Brian prefers to talk about ‘growth’ rather than ‘recovery’ and says: “I feel like a better leader than I was before the breakdown. John Flint, our current CEO, says that in his experience, people who’ve had mental health problems are more resilient and more empathetic.”

Growing evidence

The World Health Organization says that one in four people in the world will be affected by a mental or neurological disorder at some point in their lives. The government-commissioned Thriving at work report on workplace mental health, by Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer, reports that around 15% of all people at work in 2017 had symptoms of an existing mental health condition. When the CMHA carried out a study among its member companies in 2016/17 – Inside our City workplaces – it found that 47% of survey respondents had experienced mental health difficulties while working for their current employer and only half had disclosed this to someone at work.

And when the CISI surveyed its members in 2018 about their experiences of dealing with mental health problems in the workplace, just 46% of respondents said they would feel confident speaking to their manager about mental ill health.

CISI survey on mental health
In 2018, the CISI surveyed its members about their experiences with dealing with mental health problems in the workplace. It received the largest response – 3,686 responses – in the shortest amount of time compared to any other survey ever run by the institute. The responses came in from members in a range of disciplines, and respondents answered the question: How confident would you be talking to your manager at work if you were suffering from stress, anxiety or depression?

Here’s what some of you told us:

Corporate finance: “I would be worried that this would affect advancement and/or be logged on an HR file.”

Compliance: “I have found employers unsympathetic about family issues, let alone mental health, and I would not discuss this at work in any circumstances, as any weaknesses are exploited in the banking sector by superiors.”

Capital markets: “Sadly, as soon as you mention mental illness you are deemed unfit to carry on a controlled function. Why would a company take such a risk? Another fear is that management will use this revelation at some future date against you. Declaring mental illness has no benefits, only lots of downsides.”

Asset management: “I have had time off before and I don’t feel [my manager] understands exactly why I couldn’t come into work – so now I work reduced hours so I can leave early and I won’t be judged for it.”

Wealth management: “As a female, the sector is hard enough to succeed in. By admitting to stress, it is another reason for them to say we are ‘not cut out for the job’.”

Operations: “Best way to get yourself dismissed or moved to a location forcing resignation. My firm dismissed someone suffering from this on Mental Health Day.”

Risk: “In my experience it is not treated as an illness, but somewhere between a weakness and skiving."

Financial planning: “Afraid of losing my job if I admit to anxiety or any stress related conditions.”

Fintech: “In fintech there is a lack of diversity and therefore as a woman who is already not accepted within the male-dominated community, there is no way you would expose vulnerability to a gender imbalanced group.”

Many of the bigger banks offer support for mental health on a global basis via their employee assistance programmes (EAPs). Royal Bank of Canada is one example. Jersey-based Gail McCourt, head of fiduciary management, RBC Wealth Management, says that staff have access to a range of resources including the EAP, mental health first aiders, wellness fairs and lunchtime events. The CISI’s EAP includes counselling services and support through general life situations, such as managing money, relationships, moving house, family issues and work stress, to name a few. Some adopt more innovative solutions.

Jonathan’s experience

Jonathan Phelan, head of retail lending supervision at the FCA, set up a non-profit organisation through which he trains people to deal with mental health issues after experiencing his own difficulties in this area.

Jonathan experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, leading to depression, following the stillbirth of his first child. When he returned to work after the loss of his son, he found that 90% of his colleagues didn’t want to talk about it and acted as if nothing had happened. He learnt, from his own experience, that people with mental health issues are often treated as if they are weak and incapable rather than having an illness. He concluded that what is really needed is a more human approach. “Organisations take too much of a process approach when the best solution is improving the quality of conversations that people have,” he says.

The experience led him to create a non-profit social enterprise, Evenhood, through which he writes, speaks and trains people about mental health.

A good conversation about mental health removes the emotion. It requires the manager to listen in a non-judgemental way, understand the triggers that have an adverse effect on the individual, and focus on what they really need – for example, in terms of autonomy, flexible working or feedback – to do their job effectively. Jonathan has even written a book about The art of the mentally healthy conversation.

He believes the financial services sector does have some specific characteristics that can trigger mental health issues. One is that money is invariably at stake and the stakes can be very high. “If you are dealing with a multimillion-pound derivatives contract, there are massive consequences to making a mistake,” he says, “and that creates a pressure all of its own. Another is the emphasis placed on resilience. Feedback I’ve received from those in retail financial services is that their personal ethics sometimes run up against the pressure to sell financial products.”

Miles’ experience

Miles Kean, executive director, Entrepreneurs division, Coutts Bank had his first mental health episode in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis. He says: “Mine was very much work-related. It was the financial situation at the time, there was a massive build-up of stress and everything seemed to be on the brink of collapsing before the government stepped in. I developed an anxiety disorder that was undetected, and it slowly built up until I blew up.”

Imagining anarchy on the streets and reading articles luridly suggesting that bankers would be dragged from their homes, Miles went three weeks without sleeping before finally breaking down. He spent a further three weeks in the Priory Hospital before returning to work. 

In two subsequent episodes, his anxiety disorder flared up and he had to take time off work – he says that in each case he had simply carried on as though nothing had happened – until he sought proper diagnosis on the third occasion.

The breakthrough in addressing his mental health difficulties was to receive a proper diagnosis and then to undertake cognitive behavioural therapy, which is “like a rewire of your brain”. Together with working on his fitness and changing his lifestyle, it helped him get back to a point where he wanted to go back to work

When he did, he found people tapping him on the shoulder wanting to quietly talk about their own issues and this gave him the impetus, together with colleague Mike Heyworth, to create a wellbeing strategy with the backing of the Coutts board. It encompasses an online hub, health checks, a network of 90 wellbeing ambassadors and training line managers so they know how to react when an employee comes to them in distress. Miles has since been promoted and says Coutts has been highly supportive.

Jayne-Anne's experienceDame Jayne-Anne Gadhia, former CEO, Virgin Money, experienced postnatal depression after the birth of her daughter in 2002 – an episode she recounts in her book The virgin banker. Jayne-Anne writes, “At a moment that I had expected to be full of joy, the heavy, cloying black clouds of depression settled on me and would not let go.” She couldn’t even face listening to music, which had always been a great love. Jayne-Anne had planned to take just six weeks maternity leave, but instead took almost three months off to recover, and writes: “The experience changed me and the way I look at mental health issues today. I had thought that ‘depression’ was a sign of weakness, an imagined illness, an excuse. Now I know it is an illness as real as a physical ailment, and it needs as much care and repair.”

The cost of mental health in the workplace

Mental ill health exerts a huge toll on employers and employees. The Stevenson/Farmer review, looking at the UK workplace as a whole, concludes that “300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their jobs each year, and at a much higher rate than those with physical health conditions”. Supporting data from Deloitte calculates the cost of poor mental health in the workplace to be £33bn to £42bn, or approximately 2% of UK GDP.

According to the Stevenson/Farmer review, the cost of mental ill health is highest in the finance, insurance and real estate sectors, at £2,564 per employee – for all employees, not just those who have a mental health problem.

Potential solutions

When it comes to finding ways to help employees who may have mental health problems, there are many interventions that can be deployed, ranging from the conceptual – such as policies, commitments and partnerships – to the specific, such as screening; sickness leave; therapies; sleep pods; mindfulness sessions; sleep incentives; resilience coaching; and training of mental health ‘first aiders’.

What’s striking, though, is the extent to which the most important part of the solution is perceived not to be any particular package of practical measures, so much as a change of culture and a re-striking of the conversation around mental health and reduction of the stigma of ‘speaking up’.

Until recently, mental health was a taboo subject. Typical responses to somebody presenting with mental health problems – in financial services as in most workplaces – have ranged from colleagues ignoring the issue, because they don’t know what to say, to a highly negative stigma that it is a sign of weakness and incapability. Support was almost invariably reactive and often failed to make changes that would allow the person to resume and flourish in their role. The consequence is that people kept their anxiety, depression and struggle secret, afraid that if they told anyone it would ruin their career.

The sea change that has taken place, and is still taking place, is of people speaking out. Lora Benson MCIPR, CISI head of media, says: “We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but possibly one of the most powerful ways we can influence a change in the stigma of mental ill health in the workplace is to tell stories. By amplifying ‘real models’ rather than role models, we can start to show that there is an acceptance that you don’t have to be ‘OK’ all the time. The more we share the experiences of members or those in our sector who have directly been influenced by mental health issues at work, the more we slowly chip away at the perception that it is not OK to talk about it.”

Mental health is currently high on the financial services sector’s agenda, thanks to a growing recognition that it’s something that affects a huge proportion of the workforce. Nobody should be complacent at this stage. If anything, the full extent of the issue is only just beginning to become apparent – but at least people are talking about it.

The full article appears in the July 2019 print edition of The Review. All members, excluding student members, are eligible to receive the quarterly print edition of the magazine. Members can opt in to receive the print edition by logging in to MyCISI, clicking on My account, then clicking the Communications tab and selecting ‘Yes’.

Once you have read the print edition, keep coming back to the digital edition of The Review, which is updated regularly with news, features and comment about the Institute and the financial services sector.

Seen a blog, news story or discussion online that you think might interest CISI members? Email bethan.rees@wardour.co.uk.

Published: 02 Aug 2019
  • The Review
  • mental health survey
  • stress
  • wealth management
  • mental health
  • financial services

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