National Hypnotherapy Society | Stress in the City: 'At first, I…

Geoff McDonald knows a thing or two about the January blues. For many, the start of the new working year is a gloomy period, with the third Monday (this year, 16th January) purporting to be the most depressing day on the whole calendar, what with broken resolutions, bleak weather and the post-Christmas/pre-pay day strain on the purse strings.

And this year in particular, says the co-founder of the Minds@Work movement - which operates alongside Heads Together, one of the Telegraph’s Christmas appeal charities, in campaigning to raise awareness of mental health issues - some could be in for a Blue Monday with knobs on. “Coming back to work at the start of a very uncertain 2017, being expected to do more with less - and this 24/7 mentality at work, of being always ‘on’,” enumerates the engaging South African-born campaigner, who settled in Britain in 1998.

But the depression and anxiety exacerbated by such stresses and strains aren’t just restricted to one day a year. They accounted for 11.7 million lost working days last year, according to the Health and Safety Executive; behind (and beyond) those figures, lie the blighted lives of millions of fathers, mothers, daughters and sons. Meaning there has never been a more pressing time to support the Heads Together campaign, and those who desperately need its help.

McDonald, 54, former global vice president of human resources at consumer goods giant, Unilever, speaks with passion and animation, in part because he knows about his subject from the inside out. In January 2008, he remembers: “I woke with a panic attack that was so severe I thought I was having a heart attack and was going to die. I went to the doctor the next day, who diagnosed me with anxiety-fuelled depression.” It came out of nowhere, he says, and completely floored him. “I’d been running two marathons a year, holding down a demanding job, travelling the world. My understanding of the word ‘depression’ up until that point had been when you Poms would beat us South Africans at rugby.”

When he walked out of the doctor’s consulting rooms that January day, however, he made a decision that he now credits with saving his life. “I decided I was not going to be burdened by the stigma that is linked to having depression and anxiety. So I told my wife, Debbie, about the diagnosis, I told my two daughters, who were then 10 and 13. I told my friends and I told my employer what was wrong. And, guess what? In return, I got all the love and support I needed to get better - and I got better.” “I now have a very simple purpose in life,” says McDonald, who stepped down from Unilever in 2014 and now focuses his energies on Minds@Work, “Whether it be big business, the NHS, the police, or the army, or anywhere else - I want people in those organisations to feel that they have the choice to put their hand up if they are suffering from anxiety or depression. I want them to know they’ve got that choice, just as they would if they were suffering from a physical illness.”

A combination of Prozac (he still takes a low dosage now, “if I were diabetic, I would take insulin for life”), Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and “slowly getting back on my bike” enabled him to return to work after three months. Though he had a minor relapse in 2010 – “not as bad; I now knew how to manage it” – his career and life continued on track. What might have befallen him if he had keep quiet, as he says many still do, became painfully clear two years later, in October 2012, when a banker friend in the City committed suicide.

“I now have a saying: ‘the brighter the light, the darker the shadow’. Nico was a guy who brought light to everybody’s life, including his wife and three young children. He was the sort of guy you’d never think could suffer from depression or anxiety. But he did - and he hid it.” “I lay in bed that night and knew that the stigma surrounding mental illness had killed him. I’m not a psychologist or a therapist, but I came to a simple conclusion. If Nico had been suffering from any other illness, he would have reached out and got help, but because it was mental illness he didn’t.”

People fear, he believes, that by admitting a mental health issue they will expose themselves as “weak” and be labelled by their employers as somehow damaged, with all the consequences for their career that such a damning judgement might entail. “They think that they will be seen as someone who can’t take the heat in the kitchen; who hasn’t got the resilience to do the job that needs doing.”

He articulates this fear so clearly, that I wonder why it wasn’t something that held him back when he was first diagnosed with anxiety-fuelled depression. “I’ve reflected on that. I’d got to a senior job by that time. I wasn’t chasing anything more in my career. And I worked for a company that I knew truly cared. So I was one of the lucky ones. It was easier for me to come out and talk about it.” That others – such as Nico – do not see themselves as so fortunate has, he believes, something to do with the business environment. “In the last three years in the UK, thanks to the work of organisations such as Heads Together, we have seen a significant increase in raising awareness around depression and anxiety. But tell me who has been doing it? It has been sports people, politicians and celebrities.”

This week, Steve Clarke, the chief of WH Smith, spoke to the Telegraph for the first time about the mental health issues that have affected his mother and husband, while Sir Hector Sants a former senior executive at Barclays and Lloyds chief Antonio Horta-Osorio both took well-publicised leaves of absence for stress and exhaustion in recent years.

Give me a single senior business leader who has done the same as Alastair Campbell, Ruby Wax or Stephen Fry and spoken up about their own depression It is, he suggests, “like being gay and a professional footballer”. In other words, depression and anxiety are taboo in the business world. Breaking that silence has become something of a singular mission – not because he wants to “out” individuals, but because he believes that the stigma around mental illness can only be tackled when those in the most senior roles in business organisations are prepared to own it themselves.

Minds@Work helps employers to put in place the sort of support framework that he first devised at his old company, including the provision of what he calls “a mental health fitness regime” – yoga classes, mindfulness and meditation. He has also been working – with the support of Heads Together and the former prime minister, David Cameron - to encourage business leaders to talk openly about their own struggles with mental health. Last month, under the auspices of Minds@Work, seven senior people in the sector spoke up.

They ranged from Sir Ian Cheshire, the chairman of Debenhams, to top-drawer leaders at HSBC, Dell and the law firm Herbert Smith Freehill. All shared their own tales of depression, anxiety or living with a family member who suffers from them. Robin White, the founder and chair of Engine, the global marketing agency, for instance, spoke of how he had coped with the challenges of having bipolar. Such openness, McDonald says, demonstrates that the world of business is finally addressing the stigma of mental health. In collaboration with Heads Together, he now wants to spread that message more widely, and at this time of year in particular, to reach those for whom Blue Monday might otherwise be a breaking point.