Still no room at the top for discussing mental health issues

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Still no room at the top for discussing mental health issues

The time when bosses confess to mental health problems remains a long way off

 

Senior executives are generously rewarded. In return they bear responsibilities that are hefty and in some cases can prove overwhelming. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Senior executives are generously rewarded. In return they bear responsibilities that are hefty and in some cases can prove overwhelming. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

 

Last week, a UK coroner ruled that businessman Angad Paul killed himself while the balance of his mind was disturbed. He jumped from the balcony of his London penthouse in November, a couple of months after his steel business, Caparo Industries, went into administration.

His wife told the inquest he had started wearing only his cheapest watch, saying he believed he did not “deserve nice things” when the steel company’s workers were losing their jobs. Mr Paul felt he was to blame for a business failure that, in reality, was largely the result of economic forces he could not control.

Senior executives are generously rewarded. In return they bear responsibilities that are hefty and in some cases can prove overwhelming. Greater openness about the stresses imposed by running a company might not have saved Mr Paul. But taboos within business about mental illness need challenging for the sake of those it could help.

I was saddened by Paul’s death. In 2006, I spent a day with him visiting a couple of Caparo factories in the English midlands. He had been on antidepressants for years, the inquest found. But he showed no signs of depression then or during subsequent phone chats. On the contrary, he was upbeat about the challenges facing his business.

Cheap Chinese imports were already making inroads into the profitability of Caparo, a family business which Paul ran with his father, a respected entrepreneur at the time and member of the House of Lords. The younger man dragged me enthusiastically round a steel tubes plant in the Black Country, a grimily industrial region, explaining all the measures Caparo was taking to cut costs.

I had expected Paul to be a dabbler in heavy industry. He had worked in films when younger, producing Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a film directed by Madonna’s ex-husband Guy Ritchie. But Paul appeared to know his business well. Shop floor workers were pleased to see their wisecracking boss “up from London”.

The atmosphere was less comfortable over lunch with Paul and a group of Caparo executives, most of whom were veteran lieutenants of his father. Some of his paeans to modernisation were met with the awkward silence that takes the place of disagreeing with the boss when the hierarchy is strict. There were evidently strains within the organisation following the closure of a failing subsidiary burdened with hefty pension scheme debts.

That collapse was a harbinger of the downfall of Caparo Industries. It went under with liabilities of £164 million, including a £46 million pension scheme deficit. Assets with a book value of £50 million were reckoned to be worth just £73,000.

The inquest testimony of a colleague suggested Paul felt his father still pulled many of the strings. Most bosses of large, quoted businesses do not face that dynastic challenge. But they do have to contend with their powerlessness to alter economic cycles or change workplace cultures swiftly.

Cosmo Hallstrom, a fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, says: “Depression and burnout are symptoms of a lack of control.” Stress is a good thing when it stimulates executives to perform. Bosses are typically skilled at dealing with it, or they would not have risen so high. But their position at the apex of an organisation leaves them isolated if they start feeling the strain, says Dr Hallstrom. “I see a lot of senior executives who are desperately afraid people will know they have a problem,” he says. In business, “stigma is still a very big issue”.

In 2014, the widow of Pierre Wauthier, former chief financial officer of Zurich Insurance, criticised the Swiss insurer’s handling of his suicide. She told the annual meeting “unaccountability remains part of Zurich’s corporate culture”. A study commissioned by the Swiss financial regulator found no evidence Mr Wauthier was placed under inappropriate pressure by colleagues.

Dr Hallstrom is sceptical whether the top tier of business will become more accepting of mental health issues. But there is at least one hopeful precedent. In 2011, António Horta-Osório, chief executive of Lloyds, went on sick leave after a bout of insomnia kept him awake for five days. Sir Win Bischoff, chairman of the UK bank at the time, stuck by Horta-Osório despite investor disquiet, even saying he might step down if the younger man did not come back to work. The chief executive returned after medication and couple of months of rest. He is still in the job four years later, having steered Lloyds through one of the trickier phases in its history.

The time when bosses confess to a mental health problem as cheerfully as a cold remains a long way off. Horta-Osório’s public recovery has in a small way helped challenge the taboo.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016

 

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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