End the stigma that surrounds stress in the City

LLOYDS Banking Group has announced that Antonio Horta-Osorio is expected to return before the end of the year, but City sources have been saying there is no way that he will be able to come back as chief executive after taking time off for physical and mental exhaustion.

The persistent stigma is that after any episode of stress-related or mental illness the individual will no longer be a safe pair of hands able to handle a high pressure job.

In fact, many people will recover entirely from an episode of stress or other psychological illness, while others may be highly effective while managing ongoing conditions with medication or talking therapy as necessary. Human beings are frail and risks relating to illness can never be ruled out completely. But a mental illness, even a fluctuating one, can be managed in the workplace in a similar way to chronic physical conditions like diabetes.

Stigma is born of ignorance. So few people in public life have disclosed the truth about remarkably common illnesses (now overtaking back pain as the most common cause of sickness absence), that we continue to believe the myth that people are “broken” by them.

Yet figures like Alastair Campbell and Lord Stevenson, the former Chairman of HBOS and Pearson, have done much to bring us out of the dark ages. Both have revealed that they have experienced depression during their high-profile careers. Impressively, the former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell-Magne Bondevik disclosed his depression while in power, before returning from sickness leave to finish his term and then be re-elected.

At Stand to Reason we have thousands of supporters who have experienced mental distress from all walks of life, including senior positions in financial services organisations. At KPMG, Citi, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and Legal & General, employees have come forward to break the silence and change the culture within their firms.

If one contrasts the mature way that Apple understood that Steve Jobs could continue to make a contribution while being treated for his cancer to how we once used to talk about the “Big C”, with people referred to as dying from a “long illness”, there is hope that in time we will progress to a similar modern approach to psychological illness.

Horta-Osorio had a first-class track record of handling high-pressure roles and it is unlikely that these competencies will have deserted him. Whether he returns to his role or not in the time allotted is yet to be seen. Much will depend on the details of his particular case and whether there are ongoing stressors outside the workplace of which we are unaware.

All things being equal, and putting stigma aside, the expectation should be that Horta-Osorio will return to work and thrive there, just as he would after returning from a physical illness.

Jonathan Naess was a partner in a corporate finance firm before founding Stand to Reason. www.standtoreason.org.uk