The air is thin at the top


We often look at the CEOs, A-list celebrities and athletes, and imagine that they must have things pretty sussed. To achieve that level of success they have everything sorted, don’t they? For some, the path to the top has been destined from a young age: the day they got those straight A*s or an England jersey. For others, it will have been a more circuitous route.

What do they all have in common? They have reached this point in their careers through high levels of drive, competitiveness and determination. 

It’s easy to look up with a mix of admiration and envy, but do we understand the pressures they really face?

In a recent newspaper article, the CEO of Lloyds Bank, António Horta-Osório, described for the first time how restoring Lloyds Bank’s fortunes almost shattered his mental health. The top City boss talked about his experiences and why he’s on a mission to end the stigma of workplace stress.

Within months of starting the job at Lloyds, he spent nine days in the Priory clinic, dosed up with sleeping pills, resting 16 hours a day in order to prevent his body tipping into a total breakdown. Stressed and unable to switch off, consumed by the magnitude of the task ahead of him, his insomnia reached crisis point. He hadn’t slept for five days. For the first time in his life, Horta-Osório, a man famed in the City for his almost ridiculous levels of competitiveness and drive, for his obsessiveness, for knowing and following his own mind and for finding it hard to delegate — was not in control.

He recovered and returned to his position at the beginning of 2012. It is only now, five years later, with a lot of help and support that he is able to reveal how bad it really was.  “When you are in those circumstances and you feel you have a problem, you don’t want to show weakness. I kept telling myself, ‘This is going to pass'. But it didn’t pass. It was endless.” He says that he had to reframe his view of himself. “I thought I was Superman. I felt I could do everything. Before this, I had thought that the less sleep and the more work, the better. It showed me I was not Superman. And I became a better person, more patient, more understanding and more considerate. It was humbling, but you learn."

I worked in finance for ten years, and believe City workplace cultures are at least ten steps behind in terms of emotional wellbeing practices. Anxiety, depression, sleeplessness and breakdown are stigmatised as character weaknesses. Add to that society’s hatred of bankers and you have a perfect storm, where those in need of help are too scared or confused by their own sudden weakness to get it. That is how Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO of Virgin Money, felt when she suffered with depression. She now talks about how we are all human, can all suffer, and all need support to succeed.

We have seen similar headlines in the worlds of show business and sport. Robin Williams took his own life and Ant McPartlin entered rehab; Dame Kelly Holmes revealed a history of self-harm; Freddie Flintoff and Stan Collymore suffered with severe depression.  These reports can still shock us, as if fame and fortune should somehow immunise individuals from mental illness, but some reports suggests as many as one-in-four high profile individuals will suffer from anxiety and depression at some stage in their life.

The good news? We now have an increasing number of influential people talking about their own wellbeing and mental health difficulties. They talk about the factors that have created the problems they faced, and the learning that has been a critical part of their recovery. 

Sky high expectations and lack of support drive many of the problems emerging at this level. Rehab and therapy can put people back together, but recognising the often obsessive and perfectionist behaviours, as careers develop, is critical.  This is an area where coaching has a very real part to play, whatever the sector.

Coaching is a conversation which uncovers learning and leads to action. It is a thought provoking and creative process which enables people to transform their thinking, make powerful choices and unlock their potential for fulfillment. Could coaching be one of the keys to manage wellbeing, before people reach crisis point and rehab?

Hello Digital