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Thursday 4th February 2016

The view from the cave

I’m an HRD, and I’m trapped within my anxiety
HR Wolf

Being an HR Director who is a ‘trusted advisor’ to the C-Suite has allowed me to get an intimate view of what life’s like at the top of a FTSE business.

Recently, I had a conversation with a FTSE 100 CFO. We were talking about business results and how we could strengthen performance through increased engagement and stronger leadership.

Midway through the meeting, the CFO started talking about a particular individual – a senior manager with an important and busy role in the company.

The CFO said: ‘You know, this man can’t cope with stress. He’s had to take time out before. We need to cut costs and improve performance. So maybe we should just get rid of him?’

This is typical of what I’ve heard over the years. And this same person comes up with the normal platitudes such as ‘employees are our greatest asset’ and ‘we want to be an employer of choice’. You get my meaning?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve rolled out several programmes on wellness, mindfulness and unconscious bias. I’m even proud of some of them. I know they’ve made a difference to employees who felt lonely, misunderstood and frustrated.

They also helped leaders think about mental illness in a more rounded way. So yes, I could share success stories (and there are many out there). But that’s not the point of this column.

No. This column is about my own experience as a senior executive seeing the reality of corporate attitudes towards mental illness.

Bias, ignorance, fear, brutality. I’ve seen them all. Funny thing is – I live with anxiety, and at times, depression. Sometimes I can’t leave my house in the morning. Sometimes I can’t even get out of bed. I medicate, which helps.

Taboo topic

Living with a condition which I know remains a taboo topic in corporate life has put me in a position where – despite all the excellent wellness programmes provided to support employees, and initiatives such as Time To Change – the reality I see has made me keep my own condition a secret.

I stay in my own little cave, looking out. I guess this column is also about helping me come out of my cave. It’s brighter outside.

Do you think mental illness is tolerated or understood in corporate life – to the extent where employees can be open about discussing it?

I’m not convinced. I think big business is driven by short termism, reporting results and keeping ‘key stakeholders’ happy.

This often means cost pressures, a lack of time to think and not enough senior folk willing to ‘voice up’ and help drive attitudinal change.

It’s a toxic mix – and one I hope you’ll help me explore over the coming months.

About the author

HR Wolf

HR Wolf is the HRD of a FTSE 100 company. For obvious reasons, he likes to keep his identity secret.