And now for something completely different

I've fostered a career out of problem solving. It's about the only skill I have, following a brief stab at world tennis domination that was cruelly ended by a staggering lack of talent. But seriously, spreadsheets, data, statistics and making sense of all that nonsense that normal people avoid has been my forte for 15 or so years. I've always found it second nature in a way I can't really explain. I enjoy it too, what with being a massive nerd.

Mental health problems in the UK workforce cost employers almost £35 billion last year. The number of working days lost per worker per year in financial services because of stress is now 31% higher than the average between 2007 and 2010.

Yet, the spring of 2012 I found myself increasingly unable to perform even the most basic elements of my job. Stuff that would have been plain sailing, like rudimentary spreadsheet calculations (we're talking long before the world-famous lang cat complex heatmaps by the way) were impossible to me. Lost in some kind of inexplicable fug.

At first, what with being a man, I thought I had some kind of flu. Fatigue? Lack of concentration? Yep, one of those viruses that's going around.

What I've not mentioned is that I had all kinds of personal hell kicking off in the background and I hadn't really pieced together that the two could be related. Fast forward a couple of months and it all came crashing down. Signed off work for 6 weeks or so with a cocktail of stress, anxiety and depression. Worst cocktail ever.

I told you this column would be completely different.

So, why am I treating my quarterly Connection column like a bargain basement celebrity autobiography? 'Steve Nelson: The difficult early years', destined for a pound shop near you.

Well, a number of reasons really. Firstly, it's only with a bit of distance that I've been able to talk about it properly without a sense of shame. Stupid isn't it? I didn't choose to be unwell and it shouldn't define who I am, but I felt it would if I talked about it. Like I said, stupid, isn't it?

There's a bit of a cultural shift going on and I think people are starting to talk about and address the issue of mental health.

Secondly, I reckon there's a bit of a cultural shift going on and I think people are starting to talk about and address the issue of mental health, not least of all within financial services, in a more productive manner. And I want to do my bit to help it along.

I'm mindful that this is a financial services column for financial services-type people so here's quick stat attack on some of the direct implications that poor mental health can have on our economy:

  • Mental health problems in the UK workforce cost employers almost £35 billion last year, according to research by the Centre for Mental Health.
  • This means that mental health problems cost £1,300 for every employee in the UK economy.
  • The number of working days lost per worker per year in financial services because of stress is now 31% higher than the average between 2007 and 2010, employment law specialist Fox & Partners found in an analysis of Health and Safety Executive figures.

My own experience of talking about this has been illuminating. I did a wee podcast with the good people at Citywire a few months back on the topic of mental health in financial services, chatting about some of my experiences in the past. It snowballed into a number of events on the road with Citywire, where we've collectively tried to do our bit to contextualise mental health within the financial services sector and look at what we could all perhaps do a bit better to look after each other.

The reaction to it has been mildly overwhelming, with lots of lovely people saying very nice things. But it's only the start. One thing in particular that I am growing to dislike is the term 'awareness' that seems to plague this topic. I think we need to move past that stage and move onto direct action.

And it's not going to be one thing that does it. We need different aspects to work in tandem. For me it's all very well having initiatives in place in big firms but you need folk to demonstrate leadership to make staff believe they can be used effectively. In my work with Citywire I've been privileged to share a stage with Paul Feeney and hear about the terrific work he's doing at Quilter. And I firmly believe that the main reason those initiatives will succeed is that they're being led by a man willing to share his own vulnerability. Forget sales targets, reporting lines and awards. That's leadership right there.

Similarly, as much as conversations about people, men in particular, needing to 'open up' about mental health may well be true, we need to develop the right societal framework to allow that to happen. That's why I'm grateful to the likes of Ollie Smith, Rohan Sivajoti and of course Paul for forcing this onto the mainstream financial services agenda and making it closer to being ok for others to follow.

At the risk of using up my entire annual preaching quota in one column, there's one thing I'd like to leave you with. When I see some of the more acerbic criticism in the press, below the line commentary and some of the more forthright exchanges on Twitter – particularly some of the consequences of controversial replatforming exercises or the recent fallout from that fund suspension – I'm drawn towards the subject of mental health. Not because I think organisations don't deserve criticism, quite the opposite, just that those who are in line to feel the worst implications (i.e. potential job losses or front-line servicing stress) are usually those furthest from the decision-making process.

I'm as guilty as the next person of this but I often wonder how much better it would be if we were all 5% kinder to each other, particularly in times of stress. Or even just 1%. We could all do that, couldn't we?

Visit www.langcatfinancial.co.uk for more from Steve and the rest of the lang cats.