Management consultant Paula Bellostas Muguerza was in the middle of a conference call one afternoon in 2016 when she felt a tingling sensation along one side of her face.
She finished the call, but by the time she stepped out into the hallway of her office at A.T. Kearney the tingling had turned into a total facial droop down her jaw.
“People thought I was having a stroke,” she says. “I went straight to hospital, and it turned out that it was a genetic condition that had been awoken by changes in my hormone levels… basically caused by stress.”
Like many in the financial and professional services industries, Paula worked 80 to 90-hour weeks in a high-stress, demanding environment. After the first attack, she quickly returned to her old habits – on calls from 7am, followed by back-to-back meetings well into the evening – dismissing offers of support from colleagues, not wanting to appear weak.
“I became quite abrasive, just saying ‘everything is fine, I’m coping, I just need to get my head down and get this stuff done’.
“[My colleagues] felt quite powerless; they were seeing all the signs – a decline in my wellbeing, in my mood – but they didn’t know how to approach me.”
Eventually, the attacks of paralysis increased in frequency and severity until Paula was forced to take six months off to recover from what was, in her words, “a total burnout”.
Paula’s story certainly isn’t unique: according to the 2017 Mental Health Report from Business in the Community, three out of five employees have experienced mental health issues due to work or where work was a contributing factor.
The research also revealed that while more people are talking about their mental health in the workplace, they are doing so informally with a colleague, with just 13% opening up to a direct line manager.
Now, the Samaritans have launched a new initiative designed to equip workers with the skills to spot when a colleague is struggling and the confidence to approach them and offer help.
Wellbeing in the City offers emotional wellbeing training through two online interactive courses – Samaritans Active Listening Skills and Samaritans Wellbeing Toolkit – developed in partnership with the Lord Mayor’s Appeal as part of its City-wide mental health awareness campaign This is Me.
The programmes are between 30 and 60 minutes long, and have been designed for office workers to consume on-demand in manageable five-minute chunks. Content covers a range of listening and response scenarios, illustrated through examples and personal stories from people like Rob Collins, who stepped in to help a member of his team who was struggling.
“I started to notice she was coming in quite late, which wasn’t a problem, it was just out of character… she wasn’t looking after herself,
and she was visibly anxious a lot of the time,” he says. “One evening I saw she was sat by herself quite late crying at her desk, so I went over and sat at the desk next to her and just asked if everything was OK, and whether she wanted to talk and that point she pretty much broke down.
“It came out that she was suffering from quite serious anxiety and depression and she wasn’t being treated for it.”
Suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 50 and young people aged 20-34, according to the Office for National Statistics, with an average of 14 in London each week.
Samaritans receives a call for help every six seconds, responding to more than five million contacts annually.
Samaritans chief executive Ruth Sutherland says that firms can create a “network of support” so that nobody feels they have to cope with difficult thoughts or feelings alone.
“We know that listening saves lives. Our aim is to help people who are struggling before they reach crisis point.
“City life can be stressful. We created Active Listening Skills and the Wellbeing Toolkit as we felt that by passing on some key Samaritans skills, we could build healthier, happier workplaces.”
Rob, who now works as an associate at the Bank of England, says he felt more confident approaching his colleague having been treated for depression himself, but in most cases spotting the signs that someone is struggling takes common sense more than skill.
“If someone is crying at their desk, I would hope that everybody would realise something was wrong,” he says.
“But I do understand that anxiety that people have; ‘Is it really my place?’ ‘Am I going to say the wrong thing?’”
Paula says that while there isn’t a one-size-fits all approach to talking to a colleague who seems like they aren’t coping, there is one conversation no-no.
“‘You’ll be fine’ is quite possibly the worst thing you could say because right at the time, their world doesn’t feel fine,” she says.
“And don’t let someone get away with saying they’re fine either… think about your line of questioning: something like ‘I understand you’ve got a lot on, but I’m here to listen’.”
And after years of silence, it would seem firms are indeed keen to get people talking, with a major push to raise awareness of and reduce stigma around mental health taking shape in the Square Mile.
Mental health is now a board-level priority for the majority of UK businesses, according to a report released last week by health insurance company Bupa, and a more pressing issue than physical illness for almost a third of organisations surveyed. Next month will mark the second Mental Health Awareness Week Green Ribbon campaign, during which landmarks like the Walkie Talkie and Bank of England will be lit up green and tens of thousands of City workers will don a green ribbon to help end stigma around mental health.
In 2016, the Lord Mayor’s Appeal launched This is Me in the City, a campaign that encourages employees who have experienced mental health problems to share their stories with colleagues via video message, with 280 companies registered to take part, among them Barclays, Aon, Deutsche Bank, and PwC.
PwC was also a key driver of the Wellbeing in the City initiative, putting up part of the funding for the development and piloting training modules among staff. Ben Higgin, a banking partner whose team trialled the programmes earlier this year, said the response was “overwhelmingly positive”.
“The feedback we’ve received is that, following the training, our people feel confident in spotting the signs that someone isn’t OK, and in having a meaningful conversation to address that.
“We’ve also had people come back and say they feel more confident talking about their own issues with mental health, which was slightly surprising, but another positive outcome.
“I think it has definitely captured a moment; the demand is there, people want to be able to have these conversations now more than ever before.”
Rob agrees: “By its nature this industry is high powered, it’s stressful, and employers are realising now that they have a responsibility to make sure that stress doesn’t reach breaking point.”
To find out more, or to register for the Samaritans’ online programme, visit samaritans.org/wellbeinginthecity