Mental health issues in a senior position – how open should you be?

Speaking out about mental health problems can be both a daunting and liberating experience.

For those in management roles, the fear of losing the respect of more junior staff can make the decision to open up about mental illness even harder. But many of those who do break their silence say colleagues have been supportive and it hasn’t undermined their standing in the business.  

As a journalist I took the decision soon after a major breakdown in 2014 that I wanted to go public with my diagnosis of bipolar, and talk about the impact it has had on my life.  My instinct was right, and I have never had cause to regret my openness. I’ve been touched by the number of people who have come forward and shared their own stories with me as a result.  

Mental health in the accounting industry

In the accountancy world, the conversation around mental health is gradually opening up, and the Big Four firms each have strategies in place to improve the mental wellbeing of staff and tackle stigma.

It is not just about being seen to do the right thing. The financial imperative to improve workplace wellness is clear. Poor mental health costs employers between £33 billion and £42 billion a year, with an annual cost to the UK economy of between £74 billion and £99 billion, according to Government figures.

When the AAT recently surveyed professionals who work in accounting and finance, nearly half (43%) said that they have suffered from stress because of work.

I spoke to a number of people in management roles at the major accountancy firms to find out why they decided to speak out about their mental health, and the impact this has had on their careers.

One senior manager has asked me to change her name, for reasons which will become clear.

The impact of mental health issues

‘Louise’ was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety. She says she was raped by a colleague following a work social event a number of years ago. A lengthy police investigation followed, during which time the man she had accused remained in the same department, however, the case was dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service to a lack of evidence. Louise has also been struggling with an eating disorder since her teens.

She says: “It came to a head when I was going through a particularly busy period at work. There were certain client offices and people that would trigger the PTSD, and I wasn’t very good at recognising that, which probably lead to why the anxiety developed. I started to not want to get onto the tube, or go to certain places because of the impact it would have on me.

‘The PTSD manifests itself in nightmares and flashbacks and not being able to sleep.  When you are then combining that with working until 2am in the morning on a project leaving only a couple of hours to try and get some sleep and then waking up after an hour because you are having a flashback, it was very difficult. I eventually got signed off from work for two months, and that’s when I had the formal diagnosis.’

Despite the fact that Louise couldn’t tell most of her colleagues what the root cause of her mental health problems was, she has still been open with them about the illness itself and its impact.

“Most of the team are aware of my mental health issues without knowing the underlying cause. Only very few people know about what triggered the PTSD. In general everybody has been hugely supportive without being patronising. A number of people have since opened up to me and about their own mental health issues and that has been quite important from a team perspective.”

What support is available?

Jessica Carmody, is a senior manager at KPMG and chair of its Be Mindful Network, a peer support service for staff to receive mental health support from other colleagues.

She says: “I have had two serious episodes of depression, which have resulted in two admissions to The Priory since I joined KPMG in 2014. The first was not long after I joined and the second was last year. Mine tend to be triggered by significant life changes and transitions.

“With the first episode, I think it was because I had moved from a job in the US back to the UK, and it was a period of adjustment. With the second I had not long moved house and I had been promoted so I had a lot of changes at the time.”

But Jessica feels the company has been supportive and helped ensure the condition has not held her back.

“I feel really good about the fact that despite these episodes I have progressed here, and I’ve been put forward for another promotion this year. Working is extremely  important for my self esteem. I once cried on the phone to a partner because I was unwell, but we have discussed promotion, and he has still given me his backing, so I’ve been able to thrive. It shows that he respects my ability to manage my condition and doesn’t see it as a weakness to the quality of my work.

“I am also open with the team of staff that I manage. I refer to my depression as a disability because it is a chronic condition. By talking to my team it means that we can sometimes manage our diaries so that I can leave early if I need to, and the same for them. “

Learning to cope

John Binns, is a former Deloitte partner and now vice-chair of Mind, and non-executive director of the City Mental Health Alliance.

He now uses his personal experience of learning to cope with depression to advise companies and individuals as a wellbeing and resilience adviser. He is a qualified cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) coach. CBT is a type of talking therapy favoured by the NHS for conditions like anxiety and low mood.

He says: “I thought my depression was going to be career ending. I got to such a bad place that one evening I felt I simply couldn’t come in the next day. I had difficulty making decisions and difficulty focusing. I was anxious about doing things that were normally fine, and I was avoiding people.

“I was off work for three months during which time I ended up in a psychiatric hospital. I didn’t think I would be able to go back to work, but I did and I was equally as successful as I had been.

“I went on a mission to try and change the culture around talking about mental health issues and Deloitte responded very well. It now has many initiatives around training and resilience.”

John says that from working with many clients in professional services as a coach, some of the characteristics that drive those in careers like accountancy can also make them susceptible to depression and anxiety.

“Being ambitious, caring deeply about the outcomes of your work, always volunteering yourself for projects – these are all attributes that are very positive, but they can become a risk if you take on too much or don’t allow yourself to ever fail.

“People must be given the opportunity to look after themselves, as we will all run out of road at some point.”

Some of the case studies featured found helplines useful, including Anxiety UK – 0333 212 5820.

Leah Milner is an award-winning money and mental health journalist whose work has been published across the national and industry press. She has a diagnosis of bipolar and campaigns for greater understanding of mental illness..

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