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The £99 billion problem: How I learnt the hardest way about mental health and the workplace

I recently have started working as a non-exec director for glyde, a service that gives businesses the opportunity to offer their staff phone/Zoom/Skype therapy sessions (within hours if needed). The therapist and method of contact is chosen by the employee and booked at their convenience - but paid for by the employer on a credit system. Which staff member is using the service is not available to the employer, and any feedback is anonymous. The employer knows how much credit has been used, but not by whom. I first learnt of glyde in January when I was sent a link by a friend and instantly loved the idea. 
I have tried to find a list of therapists online and know it is almost impossible. I also know that a lot of the online services are text based, which although useful, is not the same; most therapy directories or matching services don’t require their members to be accredited, they have an email preamble to booking, and then require you to go to an office – so people can lose their bottle for the idea of saying ‘help me’, rather than a "see a slot -> book immediately -> talk to someone the next day" model. Therapy should not seem scary or weird, it should be seen as a way of gaining strength, mental agility, and resilience - but we have systems and ways that make it seem like another planet. So, I was ecstatic when they came back to me for day-to-day help and I could join as a director of the business.
Fundamentally this is because I emphatically believe that it is part of our responsibility as employers to de-stigmatise the idea of mental health care, and minimise barriers to employees getting help. But, I also have personal reasons why this is so important, and for this I wanted to tell my story (Trigger warning: the following content has themes of depression and suicide).
February to March 2013 was particularly rainy - unrelentingly so. I wouldn’t ever remember this except that my Lead Developer Mickey kept talking about it. He had worked for me for over a year, moved on his own from Israel at the behest of his best friend Luca who had worked for me at the time (since left), and was generally a man of few words and a lot of smiles. He’d happily sit listening to people’s stories and smiling at team drinks though I’d worry he wasn’t getting involved, and then the next day he’d send me a sincere email saying he’d had a lovely evening and thanking me for inviting him. He was always sincere, attentive and dedicated. He kept saying he needed to take a holiday for a break, he didn’t want to leave the country, but where should he go where it wouldn’t just be raining and he’d have to sit in a room. I can’t remember what I recommended, apart from that he should take a holiday as he hadn’t had one in a while.
I remember walking through Westfield in late March, going to the cinema on a Sunday; I’d seen a random edge case come in from a client about something that they disliked on the website. I looked at it and mentally put it in the ‘nice to have’ pile, and then got a breathless call from Mickey: he was running (I think literally) into the office to fix the problem and was already on the bus. “No, no” I said, “It needs to be prioritised, don’t worry” – the product manager in me more worried about the product backlog, and the egotist in me concerned that he thought I was some kind of tyrant CEO who would flip out if someone didn’t break into a sweat at one email from a customer. A little alarm bell went off, enough to log to memory.
The next week my accountant came and told me that he’d come in on a Saturday morning and Mickey was asleep on the couch. He’d apparently worked through the night trying to get a bug fixed; I’d pulled all nighters with the dev team before to get things done, so probably said something flippant like “Excellent, that’s the kind of dedication I like to see” but there weren’t any big bugs as far as I knew and Mickey was also quiet and kept talking about the rain, so we had a chat. He was feeling a lot of pressure, and wanted us to get another team member on the dev side so it wasn’t all on him. I said we’d start looking but I was worried about the budget so we might have to look hard, but that he should also know there was no pressure on him.
2 days later he wanted a chat, so I asked Dan* his manager and team mate on the front-end work to come in too. Mickey was worried I was going to sue him if something went wrong and he was close to tears. I tried to be as normal as possible – I know I said that obviously we would never sue him (many many times), things go wrong in business and development, but he can’t take that on, I take that on, that is my job. I also said that he seemed very stressed out and I thought he should take some time off immediately to decompress and we would up the search for help for him. I also suggested as a friend that he should go and talk to someone confidentially, and I could help him find someone.
Dan went and had a walk and chat with him before he went home, and Mickey reported back that he was pleased to have the break and would keep in touch. Then he said he didn’t want to talk to someone because if he did, he was certain that the board and me would have bugged the room. I am ashamed to say at this point it did cross my mind there was something in the code that I should worry about – there never was, he’d never done anything wrong. But I was more worried that this was a very paranoid intrusive thought, that anyone else laughed at the concept I would sue him, or bug any room. I rang his friend, and he was concerned too, I think he said it was personal things also, but he would check in on him.
3 days later he asked if he could come back in, I obviously said yes and he came back to the office. He was clearly very very agitated, again close to tears. I didn’t want him working on code, so we gave him the CVs to look through. 30 mins later he came in asking us about putting secret messages in the telephone numbers in the CVs. Then, I knew this was bad. I had talked to professionals to get advice whilst he was off, and they told me (I didn’t know) that you can take people to A&E for mental health reasons. One of his close team members took Mickey immediately. I have a vivid memory of standing outside and him begging me to tell him that he had “done something good and made me proud”, I said yes, and then panicked because it felt final - I told him that how he was feeling was just an illness like a broken leg, and it would take time but it could heal with the right treatment, he just needed to see someone who could tell him how to do that.
His friend took him to the hospital and they took it very seriously; they booked him in to another appointment close by to get assessed. He walked with Mickey, and asked if he could come in. Mickey said he wouldn’t go in if anyone went with him, but he would if his friend left. They went back and forth but Mickey was resolved. So in the end his friend conceded as there was nothing else he could do, and reluctantly sent Mickey off to the appointment. 11pm that evening Luca (as his next of kin) had a call from Social Services. Mickey had never turned up at the appointment. We started calling and ringing and Luca decided to go to his flat. Past midnight he found him in the bathroom at his flat, where he had carefully and deliberately tied his belt around his neck, and hung himself from the shower rail.
It was about 3 weeks from that first call outside Westfield to him taking the decision to end his own life. I thought about it, and what I could have or should have done, at least once an hour for the first year after his death; with some therapy a little less the two years after that, after about 5 years it was less than once a day, and now it’s probably monthly. There is no-one who was on that close team who was not impacted, even with the fact we got trauma therapists in for everyone to talk to. As one of my good friends said to me “Suicide is like a black hole, it leaves a space that drags everyone in”. I am a trained psychologist, I know about mental health, I know work could have contributed, I also know that there were other bigger factors that were discovered afterwards, and foundations for his fate that were laid well before that.
This story is not here as a “woe is me”, or a sensationalist way to talk about glyde – but because it is so important to help people, and for people to share their stories to de-stigmatize mental health and see how it can impact anyone. This story is what happens when the illness of depression continues to the worst case scenario, and it focuses the mind on what could be done so others in this situation can be helped. I have also told it to highlight how quickly and easily people can fall down the slope, to encourage systems to be put in place that can be called on quickly. This certainly doesn’t mean however hard you try, or whatever services you offer to anyone in your life that is depressed, that there is a guarantee – it is after all an illness, but it will never hurt to try to help. If not just for human reasons, there are also many many business reasons. Here are a few of them:-
  • 91 million working days are lost in the UK every day due to struggles with mental health – costing the national economy £99 billion a year
  • Senior directors took over four weeks off work last year due to poor mental health
  • 32% of full-time employees in the UK have suffered some form of mental health issue in the workplace – roughly 7.5 million people
  • 33% of them have never sought any professional help and 44% have not told their bosses about the problem.
With 55% of the workforce stating they feared admitting their issues to a manager would hinder their chances of a promotion, and 59% fearing it would affect relationships with colleagues – it is clear that rather than the old school way of simply claiming “my door is always open” and thinking ‘job done’ - we need to assess what will actually help people in order to reduce the actual problem. Gone are the days of table tennis in the office and bean bag chairs making you a friendly and caring employer.
We need to offer concrete and safe ways to help people deal with day to day working life as it evolves through a portfolio of tools and management styles that help their minds along with their bodies as a normal part of daily life – mental health issues impact 1 in 4 people per year in the UK. Even if not through glyde, offering a way for staff to have quick, simple access to qualified therapists is surely an easy step in the right direction.