Vibrant economy blog

Mental health and resilience for peak performance

Perry Burton Perry Burton

Transforming Mindsets, as part of mental health awareness week, explored how top performers in sport and financial services face difficult choices when it comes to working in pressured, competitive environments. And, how as a sufferer of mental illness at any level, you are never alone.

The aim of the evening was to increase awareness and reduce stigma around mental illness. No matter who you are, where you work or what you’ve accomplished, the message is simple: ‘It’s okay, not to be okay’.

In recent times, we’ve seen our nation gradually shed that classic British reserve in favour of a place where more of us feel safe to openly share our whole selves and feel that trust and understanding are not just words, they’re central to our culture.

At just 19, Jack Green was British athletics’ bright young thing. A natural 400 metre runner, his long limbs and languorous running style saw him cruise through the European Under 23 championships and winning the gold medal in 2011. He made it into the semi-finals at the World Championship that same year.

Less than 12 months later, he was heading to the Olympics in London, and the pressure was on. A medal was expected, despite many 400 metre runners not hitting their physical peak until their mid 20s.  

Green made it all the way to the semi-final, before hitting the third hurdle and crashing out. He also narrowly missed out on a bronze 4x100m medal by 0.13 seconds. While disappointing, Green’s team knew Rio 2016 would be his time to shine. But the story didn’t quite turn out as planned.

Those fateful moments at London 2012 sent Green on a very different path, one that would reach rock bottom a few years later.

“I couldn’t get up most days. I’d been to the Olympics by the age of 20. But for 18 months I didn’t finish a session or a race,” he told the audience at Transforming Mind-sets a thought-provoking evening held in central London helping to demystify mental health.

The event, part of mental health awareness week, explored how top performers in sport and financial services face difficult choices when it comes to working in pressured, competitive environments.

Hosted by Ruby Wax, herself a sufferer of mental illness, we hoped the evening gave the audience the chance to hear first-hand the experiences of Green, Wax, double Olympic medallist Dr Hannah MacLeod MBE, me, a partner at Grant Thornton who has had his own challenges with depression and Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, the leading mental health charity working in England and Wales. 

Green tried everything: he changed his nutrition, moved into a flat he could barely afford, went out more, but nothing seemed to work.

“I ended up being suicidal. I would take a train to a race, and I used to look at the train and think that would be an easier way out than training.”

Had it not been for his coach, who helped Green seek professional help after just stopping mid-way through a race, he might not have been here today.

A silent epidemic 

Mental illness is the single largest cause of disability in the UK. It accounts for one third of all illnesses and is the largest cost to the NHS at £10.4 billion, or 10.8 per cent of its annual budget.

It’s a disease that doesn’t discriminate. With expectations of 24/7 connectivity, volatile markets and towering expectations, the financial services industry, like professional sports puts a great deal of pressure on those who choose it as a career.

The Bank Workers Charity recently found 65% of employees worked up to 30 hours more per week than contracted; 42% had trouble relaxing and 60% admitted to poor quality of sleep1. It’s not surprising to discover that male suicide rates have remained persistently high since the banking crisis in 20082.

In a recent report by BUPA 94% of senior executives questioned admitted there is a prejudice against those who experienced mental illness3. Combined with the notoriously macho atmosphere of the banking industry, it’s unsurprising the same survey found that 70% of employees don’t feel able to speak candidly about mental health concerns.

It’s something, I myself as a partner at Grant Thornton have experienced. I was really struggling in 2008. Three weeks after I started feeling low, Lehman Brothers went bust. It was a bad time to say I needed some time off. I limped on a few months.

I struggled on for four months, putting on a face to mask my condition from my firm, until one morning in spring in 2009.

I flatlined. I couldn’t go on. The thing that helped me the most was a senior partner called and said ‘you’re the fourth partner we’ve got off at the moment’. The fact that it wasn’t just me, and I wasn’t alone, was the biggest relief to me.

That pivotal point led me on a path to recovery. I went to a GP, they put me on anti-depressants, that got me to a level where I could then think about doing other things.

Those other things focused around a concept commonly referred to as ‘mindfulness’. Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, says mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment.

"It's easy to stop noticing the world around us. It's also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living 'in our heads' – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour," Williams told NHS Choices4.

Building resilience 

Mental illness costs UK employers an estimated £26 billion a year through sick days, lower productivity and recruitment costs5. Banking roles in particular are 44 per cent more likely to result in stress-related illness than the average UK job – with one in six employees facing stress, depression or anxiety.

But that’s starting to change, says Paul Farmer, CEO of Mind, the leading mental health charity.

“It wasn’t that long ago, no one was talking about mental health,” explains Farmer. Thanks to the work of Mind and other charities, the UK now has a world-leading programme that gives a million people free access to therapists on the NHS.

But what about those who might not be able to access healthcare so easily? Dr Hannah MacLeod, a British Olympic gold medallist in Rio for hockey, and another panellist, suffers with bipolar disorder.

Through her experiences working at the highest levels of her sport, she learned resilience techniques anyone could use in their own lives.

“Your ability to cope and handle failure or the perception of failure is a real skill,” said MacLeod.

“In order for our team to be successful, we had to ensure that we’d created an environment where it felt safe to be authentic. It’s about allowing people to say they’re not feeling great today.”

One exercise team GB did consistently was to spend time with colleagues gathering information about how they think and feel they communicate with others. Then the teammate listening will then reflect back what their perception is.

“It’s all about how we can establish if someone is feeling comfortable or not,” said MacLeod. “Vulnerability builds trust,” she added.

Jack takes a more philosophical approach. “The thing I’ve learned now is that life is unfair. I’m cool with that now. I used to think the whole world was against me. It’s all about developing resilience,” he says.

“It was about changing mind-set. How I did that was through goals. I used to only have one goal, to be Olympic Champion. But I never realised there were steps and I had to go through first to get there. Now I set smaller goals to help me get to the top of the ladder,” continued Green.

While Jack, Hannah and I have had different experiences, we all seemed to agree on the idea that resilience was vital in today’s modern, high pressure environment.

“In the future it’s going to be survival of the wisest, not survival of the fittest,” concluded Ruby Wax.

Mind is Grant Thornton’s London charity. Mind provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. If you or someone you know is affected by the issues raised in this article, please visit the Mind website.

Our purpose is to help shape a vibrant economy for the UK. We believe building dynamic cities and communities across the UK, gives people and businesses the opportunities to fulfil their potential and to thrive, and mental health and resilience is key to this.

References:

  1. Bank workers charity – Bank on your people
  2. BBC News - Recession 'led to 10,000 suicides'
  3. BUPA - Breaking the silence: Business leaders failing those with mental health conditions
  4. NHS Choice - Stress, anxiety and depression
  5. City Mental Health Alliance - Mental Health is Everyone’s Business