Depression and working in finance

Depression. It’s been something I wanted to write about for some time. Particularly given the recent series of tragic high-profile suicides in the media. In a way, I’m glad I waited. For a week or two, there was a public outpouring. Then most people moved on. I don’t mean that in a bad way. But if you suffer from depression you can’t really ‘move on’. If you don’t suffer from depression, I hold no absolutely grudge in you being able to.

The thing that really spurred me to write this, however, was because of what other people had written. Unfortunately, in my view, there is still a big misperception in how depression (and other mental health disorders) manifest and affect people. Things have certainly improved, particularly over the past 5 years. But I was disappointed by how many writers I really respect, just don’t ‘get it’. So today I’m sharing my story about depression and working in finance.

A history of me

I’ve suffered from depression (and anxiety to a lesser extent) since I was a child. I wasn’t formally diagnosed until my late teens. But with the benefit of hindsight, I’ve suffered pretty much my entire life.

I’ve had two major ‘depressive episodes’ in my life. The first was when I was at uni. I couldn’t tell you what started it. But it was gradual then sudden. To some extent, I’m a ‘high-functioning depressive’. On the outside, I look like I’m holding it together. On the inside is utter chaos. That chaos is finely held in balance – I often describe it as ‘being held together with sticky tape’. But a bump, sometimes minuscule, can set things off.

I was holding things together. Day-drinking helped take the edge off of things. I was seeing a uni counsellor and going to group therapy. Then suddenly I wasn’t keeping it together. I then caught flu and ‘the bottom fell out’. I went home for over a month to recover and lost about 3 stone (20kg) in weight. My GP prescribed anti-depressants to me as well as sleeping tablets as I was regularly going whole nights without sleep.

I went back to uni, but effectively missed most of the second half of my final year. Somehow, despite being drugged up to my eyeballs I managed to get through the rest of my year and pass all my exams.

It’s an unquestionable beauty of the human spirit that we can pull ourselves through the mightiest of ordeals. Mine were trivial to what many people go through each day. I think for those who suffer from mental health illnesses it’s just that the margin of error is much finer. A bump that is minor for a non-suffer can be an insurmountable setback for someone with depression.

Starting in the City

About a year into my first job I suffered my second major depressive episode. Again, I don’t know what the trigger was. I just found myself uncontrollably sobbing in the toilet. However, this episode was much worse. Whilst I had stopped the drinking, I was not coping at all with the stress and pressures of a job in the City. I started developing shakes, rashes and rapidly lost weight. However, none of my line-managers noticed. It was only when one of my colleagues saw how bad I was that it came flooding out.

This is a cruel element of depression. For me at least, it actively stops you from reaching out. You think that if you to express your inner turmoil the fine-balance that keeps you operating would be thrown out. Your world comes crashing down around you. And in my first workplace, it was true. The unrelenting focus on being ‘confident’ ‘sure’ and ‘bolshy’ meant bottling up that chaos. Until it can no longer be contained.

Is it right to ‘bottle up’? Probably not, but for me this steps onto one of the biggest misconceptions about depression.

Failure

This is a generalisation, but many non-suffers think that depression is about failure. And for many, but importantly not all, failure is a major component in our suffering. But it’s a subtly different type of failure. Most people are afraid of failing because it will either make them look bad or negatively impact them in an unpleasant way. For someone suffering from depression (or at least for me), I’m not afraid of failure. That’s because my brain tells me I am a failure every single day. Being perceived as a failure is moot. I am a failure. Being a failure means I am a bad person. [p.s. it’s this last leap, failure = bad, that is the thing I have to work on the most]

This is the thing, I find, that those who don’t suffer struggle to comprehend the most. I’m massively generalising here, but they think that if you don’t take risks, if things don’t go wrong, you’ll be OK. That failure is something you can step away from. But it is inescapable. My brain will find a way to find failure – even in the most tenuous of circumstances.

Getting back up

After my second episode, I took some time off work (only 4 days – the masochistic nature of depression). Thanks to the help of some colleagues for whom I am eternally grateful for, I ‘got help’. I saw a psychiatrist who helped me to understand and classify my suffering (unfortunately/fortunately, I’m one of those people who is self-aware which can exacerbate depression and anxiety). I also saw a therapist and went through a series of Mindfulness Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (MCBT) sessions. My psychiatrist changed my medication to something that has worked much better for me since. Unfortunately, all this treatment is a salve rather than a cure. I know that I will live with my illness for the rest of my life.

When it goes right

I’ve focused so far on much of the negative in my journey. But there is a positive. I left my first job after qualifying as a Chartered Accountant. My first workplace wasn’t right for me. I was much more careful in deciding on my second workplace. And whilst I quit the day job not that long into my career; I think I could only have made that call because I reached the right frame of mind to do so (you can read more about it in my post: I’ve got a confession to make). A lot of that is down to the positive aspects of my second job.

The turning point was when I could have had another episode but didn’t.

I was sitting in a foreign courtroom and I suddenly felt myself shaking (I primarily worked in corporate finance disputes). I had been so engrossed in proceedings that I hadn’t noticed that I had drenched my writing pad with sweat. Apparently, my eyes were bloodshot and I had gone deathly pale. In my rush to get to the airport the previous day, I had forgotten to take my medication. Having then been on a plane for 12 hours, in the rush to get ready for court I again forgot to take my meds. I had never done this before, but in effect had now gone over 2 and a half days without medication. I was getting withdrawal symptoms. Now I’ve never taken heroin, but those who’ve tried to come off both heroin and anti-depressants say it’s pretty comparable. I felt like I was dying.

But I was in the middle of a courtroom session. You can’t say anything. Do anything. I was paralysed. At that point, however, my boss turned to me and saw my suffering. And he whispered: “it’s OK”. He knew. Immediately, the tension in my body released. During the adjournment, he took me to one side. And we talked. Rather than the flood coming out and leaving me a wreck; the flood was a release.

How you can help

It was all by circumstance, but it showed me what I help I needed. My boss took the ‘weight off my shoulders’. He didn’t make out things would be easy. But he promised – and a commitment he always kept – that he would make sure it will be OK.

That’s what worked for me. And without trying to be Captain Obvious, it varies person to person. A big part of my depression is always feeling the need to take on everything – to not let people down. What I needed was patience and my boss/colleagues to step-up when I couldn’t. There are just times when I can’t do it.  Unfortunately, there are lots of people in finance (and all professions) who think that that is not acceptable. You’ve got to be 100% at all times, every single hour of the day. It doesn’t matter for them that I can work 150% most of the time but only 50% in the remainder.

I was fortunate that my bosses at my old firm ‘got it’. We worked great as a team. In writing this it did make me slightly miss working with them. But for now, the (semi) retired lifestyle is too enjoyable (they continually try to tempt me back to work). Reflecting on it, we found a way that meant my depression worked (as much as it could) in a positive way. That doesn’t mean there were no negatives. As I mentioned in my confession post, those negatives contributed to me quitting my job.

The reality of life in financial services

Part of the reason I decided to join my second employer was their commitment towards tackling mental health issues in work. Whilst the firm was good, I did get quite lucky with my bosses. It worked out for me. Whilst it worked for me, I know it didn’t for other people in my old team (and for that matter, people in my first workplace as well). This is the reality of the world. Until things get a bit better for those who suffer with mental health illnesses, there will be workplaces and bosses that just won’t work for sufferers. The odds are more challenging in the City where many employers impose a culture and environment that it is counter-productive for suffers (and I think to all young employees).

I can’t promise to young sufferers who may be reading that things are perfect. There are going to be setbacks. There are gonna be struggles. My advice is finding an employer and team that has a commitment to combating mental health issues in the workplace. I’m more wary of giving personal advice, because I know that what works for one person, doesn’t necessarily work for others. What worked best for me was finding ‘rabbis’ – senior people (bosses or not) who can offer their guidance, wisdom and counselling for succeeding in the workplace. They can help you develop a way of working that fits in with your mental health situation. I was fortunate that my rabbis were my bosses, we created methods of working that brought out the best in me (and I hope, in them).

If you’re an employer, I’ll copy some advice from Mind, who say it better than I could:

Sometimes people can worry about how to approach a conversation about a person’s mental health but there are no special skills needed – just the ones you use every day as a people manager like common sense, empathy, being approachable and listening. If you do nothing, problems can spiral, with a negative impact for individuals and organisations.

Thank you

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. I can tell you, it was bloody hard work writing this. But I hope it was worth it. If you are willing to share your story in the comments, please do. Don’t be put off if you don’t suffer from a mental health illness – personally, I would really like to hear your viewpoint as well.

Mrs YFG and I are going on holiday tomorrow, but I’ll be reading every single comment – even if I’m not responding.

It’s somewhat a shame I feel like I have to say this, but here it goes: I see my blog as a living room. Feel free to come in and share your thoughts – even (especially) if you don’t agree with me. But there’s no need to be negative or rude. Don’t be a dick.

 

All the best,

Young FI Guy

[p.s. If you feel like things are getting too much, try to find somebody to talk to – even if you don’t know them that well. You can also go on the Mind website: https://www.mind.org.uk/ which has been helpful for me.]

Comments

  1. This is such an honest and thoughtful post – all credit to you for writing it. Not an easy task, but hopefully perhaps also cathartic to you in writing it, as well as helpful for other sufferers.

    I have had a couple of episodes of depression in my life and appeared much as you described – a high-functioning depressive. But a tiny hiccup and I was lost. I managed to claw my way out of it with the benefit of a sympathetic GP who gave me the space to breathe, and using that space to live slowly for a while.

    In today’s high-pressure environments, awareness is everything. You are spot on in that having an understanding in the workplace is so important – it can be the difference between recovery and an escalating downwards spiral.

    Enjoy your holiday.

  2. Thanks for sharing your struggles with depression YFG, I am sure it cannot have been easy but at the same time I guess it can help to give these personal issues an airing in much the same way as talking to a counsellor.

    I hope you will be able to provide updates from time to time as I for one would like to hear about progress. I guess it is not something to be cured but more about understanding what helps and what makes things worse and then managing your lifestyle accordingly.

    I am doing a lot of guessing as I have no direct experience. My personal issues involve aspergers…maybe sometime I will get around to writing about it…maybe not..

    Take it easy.

    1. Hi Spreadsheetman – things are better post-FI. There are ups and downs of course. But I’ve yet to have a real rough period. I’m gonna be writing a kind-of second part to this post looking at the life (rather than work) element.

  3. Fantastic post YFG, thank you for sharing and barikg your soul. As someone who works on the other side I hope things are starting to change. I do a lot of teaches in schools about Mental Health, and it’s certainly something the kids ‘just get’. They’re much more aware of MH problems and it’s fully accepted. Sadly the city and finance are the old guard machismo masochists. Hopefully one day they’ll get there too, as so many people working in those areas seem to check out early one way or another.

    1. Thanks FIREShrink – I was hoping you would be popping along. Things do seem to be getting better. I think at an ‘individual level’ there is much more awareness – as with other important workplace issues such as improving working conditions for women and minorities. But there are a few ‘old guard’ as you say, that hold things back and make the ‘company level’ a bit slower. I’m very much hoping they get washed away in the tide!

  4. Simply thank you for sharing your story. Mental health issues is a subject close to my heart. Pleasehttps://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=999540196877913&id=529022477263023 take 6 mins to watch the attached video.

  5. I have suffered at the hands of a boss who had both reading and mental issues. He would sometimes ask me to come for meetings early the next day, forget to be there, and then act as if nothing happened. He also got me to change my email font to Arial. He only replied to very short emails and remained quiet on long ones (probably could not cope with reading them). At the time, I did not suspect anything other than the usual arrogance you can expect of some bosses. He eventually fired me for performance reasons, although I had repeatedly told him to free me from my previous role to help deliver the new role. I took the employer to the tribunal – and observed first hand how defensive he was and lied constantly on oath. Time has passed since – and I am starting to see things more objectively now. Perhaps he was not confident enough he would be fairly treated if he revealed his disability / mental health issues. This had probably led him down a certain path in that he found scapegoats when things went wrong – and had the reputation of being a hard boss – who could deal with mass-firing and large scale redundancies. As for me, the experience was decisive in not wanting to be an employee ever again. I now work as a contractor.

    1. Hi Amit, I’m really sorry to hear about the crap you had to go through. But I’m glad from reading your comment (and your previous ones too) that it has helped give you the resolve to take charge of your career and that it has been working for you!

      I’m hesitant to over-interpret your story. It kind of sounds like that your boss was getting hassle from their boss and then passing it down on to you (and probably the boss’s boss was also getting hassle). It’s difficult, as they probably needed help and weren’t getting it. But it doesn’t make how they treated you right. For me, the #1 rule in management is that responsibility is never delegated down. That rule is so often broken. I hope that none of my colleagues ever felt that I was passing the buck like this – though I know I could be difficult to work with at times. I would always remind myself to act like the bosses who were good and not like the bosses who were not.

  6. Thank you for your vulnerability. I did not “get it” until first my daughter then my son and at same time a good friend went through severe depths if depression. They are all doing better now, never cured, but learning to live with it and manage it. I hope you can also look up from the stubborn darkness and see some light.

  7. thank you for sharing your story. It’s not easy to be open about personal struggles on the internet, but they’re sometimes the most important thing to write about. Have a great holiday.

  8. Hi YFG

    This couldn’t have been easy for you to write so thanks for sharing.

    I come from a family of ‘strong’ women so it came as a shock to all when my sister (coincidentally also a chartered accountant) unexpectedly quit her successful high profile finance job with a global management consulting firm. Juggling the responsibilities of a young child while also going through a difficult divorce didn’t help but I think what pushed her to the edge was that her boss did not recognise she was suffering from a breakdown and was unhelpful and unsympathetic.

    It was only when she handed in her notice to end a 15 year career that her boss’s bosses took notice and offered her a sabbatical, but it was too late by then – even after the sabbatical, she couldn’t face going back and suffered anxiety attacks as the end date drew near.

    My sis walked away from the job and into therapy. Although she never uttered it, your word ‘failure’ resonated with me. To me, it seemed like she felt like she’d failed as a wife, failed as a mother and that she was going to fail at her job, that she just couldn’t do it any more..

    With support of her friends and family, she no longer suffers from anxiety and is a much happier person.

    I guess she had a FU fund, enough for her and my nephew to live on until she was ready to go back to work, part-time initially. Earlier this year, she went back to full-time work.

    1. Hi Weenie,

      I’m sad to hear about the suffering your sister went through. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon, and it takes a huge toll on many families. I’m glad to hear that you and her family and friends were able to support her and she’s got through those tough times.

      I read your comment last night and have been reflecting on it. Managment consultancy really is a brutal industry. I have many friends still in the industry or ‘survivors’ who escaped. I think the industry works by taking intelligent people and playing on their insecurities. Making them work very hard and pour their life into the job to squeeze the most out of them. The firms aren’t built around individual sustainability – once they’ve got what they can out of you they seek to offload you into industry/MBA/government to create a ‘network’. Some eventual ‘come back’ to earn a big pay-day. The brutal environment seems to encourage some elements of sociopathic behaviour. It’s no surprise to me that many, but not all, who succeed in that environment are oblivious to the hardship that their subordinates suffer.

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