November 14, 2013 7:11 pm

Business leaders must take a stand on mental health

Leaders need to take a stand on a growing problem, writes Dennis Stevenson
A business man with a phone rested on his shoulder, tired and frustrated©Alamy

The fact that we only talk about workplace stress when there is a high-profile case of mental ill-health is a problem. Such cases seem to be occurring more frequently, or at least more publicly. Sir Hector Sants, for example, the former head of the UK financial regulator, has stepped down from a senior role at Barclays after last month’s announcement that he was taking leave because of “exhaustion and stress”. António Horta-Osório, chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group, two years ago took a leave of absence on doctors’ advice, returning in early 2012. Carsten Schloter, chief executive of Swisscom, Switzerland’s biggest telecoms company, is presumed to have committed suicide in July, having talked publicly about the relentless demands of the job. The following month, Pierre Wauthier, chief financial officer of Zurich Insurance, committed suicide, blaming a difficult work relationship.

These events vary from deeply unpleasant for the individual affected to shocking and tragic for them and their friends, families and colleagues. They also bring to the surface how ill-prepared society is to deal with mental health, and highlight the lack of understanding of this widespread family of diseases – now among the world’s most prevalent illnesses.

I am no expert – beyond my own first-hand knowledge of depression: I “came out” (tellingly, this is the term that tends to be used) in the 1990s when I agreed to be featured in publicity for a government mental health programme. I now chair a charity, MQ, which aims to become the leading fundraiser for focused research so badly needed in this field. But I know enough to know this is an area where business can and should also take a lead.

This is not because of the role of the workplace as an incubator of stress: there is no direct link between stress and mental illness, still less suicide. Many people thrive on stress – and almost all survive it. Stress can provoke an underlying predisposition to mental ill health, but one cannot elide the two. They are not two sides of the same coin.

Indeed, mental illness is an illness, just like hypertension. That may sound semantic but it is important. It helps sufferers counter the (understandable) impulse to think: “I must snap out of it.” That will not lead them to good health, any more than it would for blood pressure. Recognising these illnesses as illnesses will help sufferers and those around them take them seriously.

The most common question I heard after revealing my condition was: “Should I come out?” My reply was “no”. There is no virtue in doing so if it harms your life. We must work to make it acceptable – to reduce the number of people who feel they must hide, freeing them to understand their illness and seek treatment.

And this is why business leaders must take the lead. Many mentally unwell people refuse either to accept treatment or to discuss their illness for fear of impairing their careers. If chief executives make clear that they expect colleagues with such problems to come forward, that it will not harm their prospects and that their illness is like any other, it will help.

This would push at an open door. This year, with Gavin Barwell, a Conservative MP, I took the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill through parliament. It went through with scarcely any negative public reaction, building on the brave work of people such as Stephen Fry in describing their own illness.

But removing stigma goes only so far. We need better treatment. The clinical outlook for sufferers is less than satisfactory: drugs and psychological treatments work, but not for all people and not all the time. Suicide has become a global health crisis – we are living in an age where it is a leading cause of mortality among people aged 15-44. Disability and premature death because of mental ill-health are not caused only by societal issues; a big obstacle to progress is how little we understand of how the brain works.

But this, too, is changing. Genetic sequencing and MRI scanning allow us better insight into brain function and to spot patterns that indicate why some are unwell and others are not. The analysis of big data sets from such studies is the new frontier in the understanding of mental ill-health. MQ has been established to aid and abet this process.

Virtually everyone reading this will have been touched by mental ill-health, either personally or in their family. To anyone reading this in a position of authority in business – or indeed in any employing situation – I send the following plea. Please be aware that business has a vital role in creating widespread acceptance of mental ill-health as a “normal”, so that tragic deaths such as those of Schloter and Wauthier become much rarer events.

The writer is chairman of MQ Transforming Mental Health and an independent member of the House of Lords

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Letter in response to this article:

Openness will help those suffering from depression at work / From Mr Bill Wilkerson

Let’s take mental health seriously / From Mr Laurie Rackind

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