The City of London Police reported 58 suicides or attempted suicides in the City of London so far this year – a massive 100% increase at the same point in 2015*.
The reasons to commit / attempt suicide are wide and varied but one of the most common factors is mental health and the impact of stress, anxiety and depression at work (amongst other factors). So why are the number of suicides / attempted suicides increasing at such a fast rate in the City of London? At a macro level, the banking industry has changed significantly since 2008 with business models evolving, the closure of various business lines, and/or offshoring leading to heightened levels of uncertainty and stress (thank you Brexit!). At a micro level, scrutiny and mistrust are at an all-time high – trades, investments, client interactions, and projects are heavily audited with management being told to do more with less people under the pressure of fines and punishments for regulatory non-compliance and reduced compensation. This is just a small number of potential reasons for the increase in reported suicide incidents in 2016.
But this issue is more widespread than the City of London as I learnt on International Men’s Day (IMD), which took place on the 19th November, where the 2016 theme was Stop Male Suicide with a focus on mental health issues. At IMD, I learnt that 75% of people (and rising) who die from suicide are male (it’s the most common cause of death under the age of 35 according to UK national statistics) and one in four adults experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any one year according to Bupa. Some of the costs associated with mental health include absenteeism, poor concentration, poor decision making, negative influence on others, cost of staff cover, management costs and increased pressure on others. Bupa estimate that the lost economic output in England due to mental health in 2015/16 is approximately £70 billion. These numbers are startlingly high so how can we manage or prevent mental health issues, particularly in high pressure jobs like consulting and/or banking where high performance is expected at all times.
Recognise the symptoms early – stress impacts people differently but is often typified by changes in their usual feelings and/or behaviours. Take the time to observe behaviour beyond performance. Have conversations with your staff around normal activities. This provides a frame of reference when things change. Be aware that although the stigma of mental health has lessened over the years, the number of those who choose not to speak is very high. The more information you have, the better you can manage situations proactively.
Find the balance between pressure and performance – we need to ensure we are applying the right amount of pressure at work for optimum performance. Too little pressure and employees can get bored or comfortable. Too much pressure can lead to strain and stress. Applying the right balance of pressure, depending on an individual’s capacity to cope at that time, will allow employees to grow, improve and perform at a high level. It’s unrealistic for employees to perform at their best at all times. Sir Alex Ferguson once said, “in football, 8 players, not 11, win games, because everybody has off-days”. We must be cognizant of these facts and manage accordingly.
Create a healthy work environment – create a positive atmosphere through your own actions and presence. Ensure employees are having regular breaks, provide annual leave and limit working hours where possible (especially during periods of sustained long hours) – one recent study of Norwegian employees found that ‘workaholics’ had higher levels of anxiety (note – there is a debate on whether you become anxious from over working or anxious people over work). When having conversations create a relaxed environment and ensure privacy and confidentiality. Finally, we aren’t all qualified mental health experts so if you identify an issue then provide support but also point employees to mental health professionals who have the right experience and expertise to deal with the situation. More companies are better prepared to support employees in difficulty.
Mental health issues impact everyone in the workplace, from the most junior employee up to the CEO (you may recall the CEO of Lloyds Banking Group, Antonio Horta-Osorio taking time off due to depression in 2011). Mental health is often ignored and an issue that is getting worse year on year. It’s our duty to acknowledge these issues, build our awareness and act.
*you can argue not all 58 suicides / suicide attempts were City professionals but equally this number doesn’t include those City professionals where instances occurred outside the City of London. Ultimately it’s still a very high rate increase which should not be ignored.
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