July 11 (Bloomberg) — On a private island 20 minutes by helicopter from central London, a hovercraft sits on the lawn of a turreted Edwardian manor house as swallows swoop around.
Trees and wildflowers line a lane that leads to a cluster of buildings that house a pool table, a 12-seat movie theater and an art studio. A yacht is moored nearby.
The island isn’t a country hideaway. It’s the Causeway Retreat, a mental health and addiction center that charges as much as 10,000 pounds ($20,000) a week for treatment away from the prying eyes of colleagues and the media. There is a waiting list for the facility’s 15 rooms.
“We get lots of CEOs of companies, traders, high-end business guys,” says Managing Director Brendan Quinn. “They want treatment, but they want it to be discreet.”
Financial services firms in the U.K. are trying to break the stigma of mental illness as the number of people seeking help increases. JPMorgan Cazenove Ltd. and Herbert Smith LLP sponsored a conference yesterday where employers were urged to do more to help workers with psychological problems and recognize they can still be productive.
Mental health is a growing concern as the credit crunch adds to stress in the City of London, the U.K. capital’s financial district. The number of men in the City who sought help for depression and stress rose 47 percent from a year earlier in the past three months, according to British United Provident Association Ltd., the U.K.’s largest private health insurer.
About 40,000 people in the U.K. financial industry will lose their jobs during the next three years, according to Experian Group Ltd, with London bearing the brunt.
“I’m getting three times as many referrals as I was a year ago, particularly from the corporate sector, and a lot of that’s related to the financial crisis,” says Bennedict Cannon, a London psychotherapist. “This has been the busiest early summer I’ve known in 10 years.”
Don Serratt, chief executive officer of Lifeworks, a private treatment facility set in the countryside at Old Woking, southwest of London, says he saw a 20 percent increase in admissions of City workers in the first six months of the year compared with the same period in 2007.
“What happens in these environments becomes so unbearable when times are bad because everyone’s really frightened that they’re next and they’re going to lose their job,” says Serratt, who was the London-based head of European mergers and acquisitions for Creditanstalt Bank until 1998. He quit after a battle with addictions and severe clinical depression, which he says were exacerbated by the City’s environment.
Even in a world of six-figure salaries, bankers report an atmosphere of unhappiness.
Fifty-eight percent of people working in banking and finance say they have seen someone cry as a result of stress at work, according to an nfpSynergy report for the Samaritans, a confidential help line that fields more than 13,000 calls daily, 20 percent from suicidal people.
The industry was recently ranked last in the City & Guilds Happiness Index, based on a survey of 2,000 people in 20 professions. Beauty therapists were first.
“The whole culture of ensuring the stress is dealt with appropriately is missing from the City,” says Sean Kelly, London outreach coordinator for the Samaritans. “The very idea that you could be marked as weak shows what a hostile environment it is.”
At any given time, one in six employees in Britain will be affected by “depression, anxiety or another mental health condition to a clinically diagnosable degree,” according to a study by the London-based Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health.
At yesterday’s conference, Dennis Stevenson, chairman of HBOS Plc, Britain’s biggest mortgage lender, said his 20-year battle with depression showed it is possible to suffer from mental health problems and have a successful career.
Stevenson, 62, said being in the “trough” of endogenous depression, caused by a chemical imbalance rather than stress, was worse than the pain he felt when he broke his leg skiing and the paramedics shut the ambulance door on the limb.
“It’s by a long way the worst experience I’ve had in my life, but I managed to keep working,” he told an audience of 150, including representatives of Credit Suisse Group, Linklaters LLP and Lloyds TSB Group Plc. “It’s the responsibility of the people at the top of businesses to create a culture and an environment in which people know they can be open without damaging their career.”
Mike McPhillips, a London psychiatrist whose client list includes CEOs, company chairmen and their families, says denial about mental health problems is rife in Britain, particularly in the “macho” atmosphere of the financial industry.
“English people are very much slower by and large to accept they are suffering with a psychological problem,” McPhillips says. “People come along way too late when there’s a lot of damage already done to them, their families, to their relationships and to their children.”
Jonathan Naess, who organized the conference, set up Stand to Reason, a charity that aims to break the taboo of discussing mental health problems, after he returned to work as an equity partner for Nabarro Wells & Co. following a breakdown.
He had left his London office one afternoon for a coffee, and less than an hour later was restrained by six police officers who took him to a psychiatric hospital. A shop clerk who was alarmed at his erratic behavior had called the police.
“I was terrified and thought I’d walked into `One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,”’ said Naess, 40, who asked that the date of the episode not be revealed. “Then the penny dropped. It was the best place for me to be.”
Returning to Work
His colleagues helped him return to work gradually, starting with light duties, after he had been treated for bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression. He was soon earning more for the company than before his breakdown.
There’s a growing industry to help professionals get the assistance they need while remaining on the job, with more treatment being offered at evenings and weekends.
“It is an increasing trend that people are not wanting their mental health problems to interfere with their work,” says John Wilkins, a psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital, Roehampton, a 107-bed private psychiatric hospital in southwest London.
Although executives have to confront the truth about their illness, doctors at the Causeway encourage them to decide for themselves how much their colleagues and employers need to know about their condition, giving them the option to pretend they are merely conducting business while on vacation.
Board Meeting at Clinic
If someone needs to go to London for a meeting, a nurse can be dressed in a suit, given a file and made to look like a business associate, Quinn says.
In the book-lined billiard room of the manor house, Quinn recalls the day one of Britain’s 100-largest publicly traded companies held a board meeting there because a member was a patient. Everything was arranged so there was no hint why he was there, Quinn says.
“We had four helicopters on the lawn, put a sheet of timber over the billiard table, laid out a meal and had 14 people sitting down for a meeting,” he says. “I don’t think somebody has to go and tell the world about a problem if they don’t want to.” He declined to name the company.
In addition to group and individual therapy and, where necessary, treatment using the island’s fully stocked pharmacy, patients are encouraged to exercise and take up long-neglected hobbies. One man spent a month stripping a motorbike and rebuilding it, which he’d wanted to do since he was a teenager, Quinn says.
Outside a former candy store that is now used for group therapy, a silver-haired client passes by on a bicycle. Quinn says he’s a top executive at a publicly traded company.
“The whole idea of this place is we try to teach people there’s a life outside of work,” Quinn says. “When did he last cycle down a country lane without his BlackBerry going off?”
Last Updated: July 11, 2008 04:42 EDT
By Thomas Penny