Executives on the Brink: The Taboo of Mental Health in the City of London

By Ben Laker

The World Health Organisation believes that mental health affects one in four people in their lifetime. This  article discusses how companies can help employees who work in demanding jobs take mental health well-being more seriously.


Long hours and unsupportive cultures in the City can lead to “unmanageable stress” writes Ben Laker. This is one conclusion from his latest research The Sales Persons Secret Code, which suggests more than one in five employees face stress, depression or anxiety. Why is this the case? After interviewing 1000 of the world’s most iconic salespeople from organisations including Adidas, Apple, Cisco, Deloitte, GSK, JP Morgan, Microsoft, Oracle, Steinway & Co. and Vodafone his research team began to understand why.

One executive interviewed was Justin Stone, a Vice President at JP Morgan who lead the UK Field Sales Executives in Asset Management. Justin was a highly successful operator, and yet on boxing day 2015, he decided to end his life. This is Justin’s story…

I have worked in Financial Sales for the past 20 years and this time last year I was suffering with a horrible illness which is called “depression”. The World Health Organisation believes that mental health affects one in four people in their lifetime which is quite staggering considering how little from my experience the subject is discussed at work in financial services in the City of London. The recent increased media coverage on anxiety, depression and suicide in men has given me the courage to share my story because I hope my few words can help someone avoid my dark, lonely and frightening experience.

So this time 12 months ago I knew something was very wrong as I felt like my head was being crushed, struggling to sleep and I was no longer looking forward to anything. My experience of the anxiety at the beginning of my illness is when you feel everything but your senses are amplified, then the depression is when the feelings are replaced with a new feeling of loss, desperate and alone. This had been gradually getting worse over approximately six months, but due to the stigma of mental health at my firm and in the industry trying to tell someone who would listen “I’m falling fast” was incredibly difficult. I was too scared to let my dirty dark secret out of the bag because it’s simply never discussed in a sales environment (It must just be me feeling like this, so keep quiet or look very weak). I told one or two closest colleagues that I didn’t feel great but I simply didn’t feel like I could share the full truth – I was embarrassed and also determined I would just get-over it, like I have done with many other things in my life.

The culture didn’t allow weakness so I kept silent and now my secret was even darker than ever before.

I even reached out to HR at one point at the end of the summer of 2015, but after delays in setting up a meeting I decided to cancel the meeting. I also attempted to meet with my MD who was my acting line manager at the time due to my manager leaving the business in the Autumn, but again trying to set up this meeting was slow and again I cancelled the meeting because I felt this isn’t the place to hang out my dirty washing. What is odd on reflection, is that during the months building up to my ultimate low point I pushed harder and harder at work to get results as it was my way of “pushing through” hoping it would pass like a bad cold – but it didn’t.

Eventually a few months later I did have a meeting with my acting line manager on my last day at work before the Christmas break (December is a very challenging month for depression as its the most social of months, but you feel like crying rather than wearing a party hat). This meeting was my annual appraisal and lets say that it didn’t go very well. I felt sick even thinking about this meeting beforehand because I was then very tired, anxious and desperate to tell someone I needed help but this meeting was not the place for such a display of weakness.

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About the Author

Dr. Ben Laker is a Partner at Transform Performance International who Co-Founded The Centre of High Performance, a collaboration between Oxford and Kingston University, London Business School and Duke CE Senior Faculty. He has worked with Apple, NASA, and the New Zealand All-Blacks among others, and has published three Harvard Business Review articles on organisational improvement. His research is described as “Phenomenal” by BBC Newsnight and “Influential” by Thinkers50.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.