Under pressure

Will Hodges looks at the growing problem of work-related stress

For all the advances in the UK's approach to mental illness, the effect of stress-related psychological disorders on the business world is still underestimated by employers. The UK has one of the highest rates of mental illness in the Western world and depression is the most prevalent psychological disorder. It is the second leading cause of lost productivity in the workplace after heart disease, affecting some three million people at any given time. The economic impact of the illness is immense. According to a government survey, nearly 11 million workdays were lost due to depression in 2006, costing the country nine billion pounds. The cost to the National Health Service is also considerable. Prescriptions for antidepressant medication doubled in the last decade, costing the NHS an estimated £400 million a year. Nowhere is the problem more acute than in the financial world, known for its challenging work environment and the uncompromising demands often placed on employees. In the City, mental health problems are still seen as a weakness. The issue of mental health has never been seriously addressed by the financial sector.

Changing minds?

Fortunately, amongst the general public, there is a growing awareness of mental health issues. In public life, there is a noticeable effort to challenge the stigma surround depression and other forms of mental illness. Well known figures from the entertainment world such as Stephen Fry, who has bipolar disorder and Robbie Williams, have done much to bring awareness to conditions which, until recently, had been highly stigmatised. The recent suicide of German international footballer Robert Enke, who was revealed to have battled depression for several years prior to his death, has brought attention to the issue of mental illness in sport. Yet there remains little publicity surrounding the ongoing prevalence of depression and other mental health problems within the professional industries. Much more is needed. Intelligent, ambitious university graduates, particularly those recruited into high-flying professions such as finance and law, many of which are living independently in the capital or other large business centres for the first time, are among those most at risk of depression and other stress-related problems. Little is done to prepare recently graduated twenty-somethings for the pressures of working life, particularly in the financial sector where graduate roles inevitably go hand in hand with long hours and considerable degrees of stress.

Of course, the reality of 80-hour weeks, deadlines and exacting line managers is rarely the subject of career presentations. Most undergraduates who choose to pursue a career in the City will be aware that a thick skin is needed to cope with the demands of the industry, after all, there are a few instances where the opportunity to earn upwards of £60,000 in your first year of employment comes without some serious hard graft. Yet, despite the financial recompense of such a career path, there is arguably not enough done by employers and recruiters to really underline the challenges new joiners will face.

Employers need to do more to make sure that the demands placed on new joiners are not too great. Recent government guidelines, Managing the causes of work-related stress, outline the steps employers need to follow to reduce the stress and associated problems suffered by workers. Most importantly, the report highlights the need for employees to be able to have a greater say in dictating their own work patterns and the pace of their work. Hopefully, gradual changes will allow young employees to feel more comfortable speaking to employers about work pressures and the problems they bring. Will this mean an end to 16-hour working days for new investment banking graduates and to relentless deadline pressures? Probably not. But at least there is more being done to raise awareness of the possible impact of tough working conditions on employees.

The curse of the strong

Depression and other psychological conditions have long been associated with individuals possessing a high degree of intellect as well as those with a driven, ambitious personality. They are often common in those in high-flying professions such as business and politics, perhaps partly due to the high level of stress these roles bring. Here are a just a few well-known figures known to have suffered from mental illness.

1 John Nash

John Nash is a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician and economist, revered for his research into game theory. Despite his achievements Nash, now 81, is sadly most famous for his long struggle with schizophrenia, which is the subject of the film A Beautiful Mind. Nash first suffered an onset of the illness in 1959 when, at the age of 31, he began to suffer paranoid delusions and was admitted to hospital after being diagnosed with schizophrenia and clinical depression. There followed a decade spent in and out of psychiatric institutions, where he was treated with medication and electric shock therapy. Despite his problems, Nash was able to rebuild his career and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Science in 1994.

2 Winston Churchill

Voted the greatest Briton that ever lived in a BBC poll, Winston Churchill served two terms as Prime Minister, most notably between 1940 and 1945 where he headed the country's wartime coalition government. Churchill suffered several major setbacks throughout his lifetime and was prone to severe doubts. He was open about his battle with depression which he referred to as his "black dog", which he learnt to manage through his love of painting.

3 John A Mulheren Jr.

A Wall Street icon, Mulheren made his name in the 1980s "glory days" of the US financial sector, as captured in the film Wall Street. He worked for US Investment bank Merrill Lynch where he rose to the position of managing director at age 25. He then went on to become CEO of brokerage firm Bear Wagner Specialists. A lifelong sufferer of bipolar disorder, Bulheren was famed for his unconventional dress sense, turning up to work in dungarees and pink dress shirts. He died from a heart attack in 2003 aged 54.

4 Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln presided has gone down in history as the President who won the Civil War and ended slavery. He suffered from periods of acute melancholy throughout his life, what we would now call clinical depression. In his younger years he openly contemplated suicide.

5 Alistair Campbell

A Cambridge graduate, Alistair Campbell is best known for his role as Tony Blair's director of communications, a position which he held between 1997 and 2003 and in the run-up to the 2005 general election. Campbell's struggles with depression and alcoholism have been well documented. As political editor of the Mirror in the late 1980s he suffered a stress-related breakdown. He was hospitalised and sought treatment for depression and alcohol abuse. He was able to rebuild his career in journalism, however, he suffered a subsequent break down after leaving Blair's office in 2003.

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