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Speaking out about Mental Health Discrimination & stress at work

By Principal Lawyer, Employment

Stress at the top has had much media attention over the past couple of months, notably involving men in the banking profession, explains Employment Law Solicitor Harriet Bowtell............

Most recently we also saw the cricketer Jonathan Trott quit the tour of Australia because of a “long-standing stress-related condition”. Trott is the third England cricketer in the last few years to suffer publicly with mental health issues. We are seeing more people ‘going public’ or ‘coming out’ with the fact that they are suffering from stress and/or mental illness. Is this a sign that men in particular are now more likely to acknowledge a problem or just a sign that there is more of a problem?   

Hector Sants, Compliance Chief at Barclays, gave way to stress and exhaustion after only 10 months in the newly created role, when he publicly stepped down in October, albeit temporarily. Another high profile casualty was Antonio Horta-Osorio, chief executive of Lloyds Banking group who had to take a break in 2011. Tragically, some other cases have ended in suicide.  

Hot on the heels of Mr Sants’ announcement in October, an international study was published, “Banking: the Human Crisis”, conducted by Swiss based global financial union UNI Finance. The study found that more than 80% of the world’s 26 banking and finance unions cited deteriorating health as a major problem for their members over the past 2 years. Stress was a key factor. Bank staff reported “unfeasible sales targets, lower salaries and having to handle the same workload with fewer members of staff”. Fear for their jobs and “banker bashing” were also blamed for causing stress.

None of this is really a surprise - Unite union reported that since 2008 the big four banks have cut around 180,000 jobs worldwide.  

It would seem that this pressure to deliver more but with less resource is taking it’s toll on workers of all levels, not just those in the public eye. This leads to the question of whether banks and other large institutions should be focussing more on staff wellbeing. There was a plea in an article in the Financial Times last month for business leaders to take the lead on making it more acceptable to come forward with problems of stress. Many people, including some clients I see, refuse to accept treatment or to discuss their illness at work for fear of damaging their career.  

In the cricketing arena, whilst there have been some ignorant comments about Jonathan Trott needing to “man-up”, there has been much public support for him and his bravery in accepting publicly that he needed help. His employer, the England & Wales Cricket Board, would appear to be supporting him and agreed for him to return home. Employers do have obligations to look after the health and wellbeing of their staff. However, they would not legally be held responsible for any harm suffered unless it was plain enough for any reasonable employer to realise that they should do something about it.

Hopefully the recent high profile examples of people speaking out will encourage others to do the same. If those at the top made it clear that they expected people to come forward with these problems and that their illness would be treated like any other, it would be a start.  

By Employment Law Solicitor Harriet Bowtell.