Letter to my younger self

hands wresting the sheet of paper and making paper ball after mistake during writing Stock Photo - 46573538

“This above all: to thine own self be true, 
And it must follow, as the night the day, 
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

A few weeks ago, a very wise, wonderful friend of mine sent me a link for an interview with the great Italian goalkeeper ‘Gigi’ Buffon. She told me not to worry about the interview being in Italian, or the subtitles, but to read the accompanying script. I did. Buffon is one of my football heroes. He combined fierce competitiveness with outstanding achievement, but all the while seemed to love the game and to have an effortless ‘coolness’ about him. Without peer, I thought, despite some extraordinary German and English goalkeeping talent of the same era.

Juventus v Atalanta BC - Serie A
Candid and wise. Gigi.

In the interview, which is styled as a letter to his younger self, Buffon discloses the battles he had with depression and his mental health. I never knew. My adult life has been characterised by what I call ‘depressive episodes’, but I think I have been fortunate to avoid serious depression. I had a wobble a few years ago, and it was career and life changing for me, and so, I tend to be drawn to news coverage of mental health and depression tales, especially when they relate to sportsmen.

As an aside this is one of the best things I have yet read on ‘burnout’. https://www.1843magazine.com/features/minds-turned-to-ash? This passage is especially good…“But in our high-performance society, it’s feelings of inadequacy, not conflict, that bring on depression. The pressure to be the best workers, lovers, parents and consumers possible leaves us vulnerable to feeling empty and exhausted when we fail to live up to these ideals”.

When I wrote my own blog piece about my burnout experience, I was surprised by the reaction, especially the number of people that said it was “brave”. Revealing one’s vulnerabilities is not brave, but it is interesting as it suggests that most people are aware of, but unwilling to share their own vulnerabilities, which is why I share the author’s view that psychoanalysis may be the answer, and why it is the focus for my current work and study. Buffon is not being brave, but he is being honourable and if he helps others, he is definitely being as magnificent as at any time in his illustrious sporting career.

Sport played a huge part in my life. My brother was a talented and successful professional cricketer. He and I were always early fascinated by the very high incidence in suicides for cricketers post career, which seems to be more prevalent than in other sports. Buffon is another one of many examples that mental health is no respecter of one’s status in society, or one’s industry, and that ‘success’, however it is perceived, is no pain relief. It first hit him in his mid-twenties, and he is now in his early forties.

These words will illustrate just how serious it became for him, “In my opinion many times people are really afraid of putting themselves out there. It also means talking to someone, showing your weaknesses but knowing from that weakness you can become much stronger. What I can recommend is to show who you really are. This is the only real cure that first of all makes you accept yourself. I must prove to myself that I deserve the gift of life, because life is a gift that is granted to you and that must be deserved.” He goes on to say that the solution is in finding how to be proud “in your own little way”

I thought about his battle, and my more modest ones, and I wondered what I would say to my 18 year old self, as I left school in 1982. In the first place, I was incredibly naive. I was so green that I was sure I was going to be ‘called up’ for national service because we had gone to war earlier that year. And it frightened me. I had thrown up the chance of a sponsored Midland Bank place at Loughborough University and taken the unambitious option of dropping my third A level, thus cutting off my routes into academia. I got myself a job, and because of my unenthusiastic approach to education, knew in my mind, that I had to make a go of it.

What would I say to that green and impetuous youth? About twenty key thoughts have occurred to me, which I describe below. Some, Buffon-like, are me accepting and showing my weakness(es). Above all, I want to tell that 18 year old to worry less. It is going to be fine. In fact, you are about to have a charmed life, and so try to take time to appreciate it as it happens. The world does not revolve around you, or any individual, which is why it is a place of endless fascination and many delights. First, everyone is busy. Do not expect people to do things for you. Sometimes they will, and it is a great pleasure. Understanding that, come to appreciate the pleasure you will feel when you help someone else, especially if it is unprompted and unsought.

You are going to be blessed in a way that few people that you know are blessed. People leave education and enter the adult world with some ill-defined ambitions or some very specific goals. The majority are cursed with not achieving them. It can eat at their sense of worth. Sometimes it is because the ambition is exceptionally lofty, like a moon landing, or hitting a six at Lord’s, but mostly they are more modest. This does not mean that those people will be unhappy; many people’s goals change, ambitions alter and they find contentment from a path, a direction, a relationship or a calling that has yet to occur to them, or be introduced to them. However, fulfilling an ambition is very satisfying. 

Your ambitions are straightforward. Many years later you will smile because they seem rather shallow. You aspire to marry and have a family. If you are blessed with a family you want them to be privately educated, and like so many new parents, to give them “what I did not have”. You need to think more about the many good things you did have, and how to ensure your children get that same love and attention, but you will achieve this. And you want to live in a bigger home than the ones in which you grew up. Materialism has a hold on you, but it is early Thatcherism and ‘on yer bike Tebbitism’, and you are swept up in the tides of the day, and as society becomes more focused on the individual and on consumerism, you are in the right place.

At one point you will have two Mercedes in the drive of a beautiful home with over three acres of grounds. A few years later you will be living in a rented flat with only a ten year old Polo for transport, but you will not have been any happier in the Mercedes years. In fact, it is a time when you struggle to enjoy your many blessings. However, you do have purpose and that is a good thing. Jung felt that those without purpose and meaning in their lives were apt to become neurotic. So, second, be purposeful.

Harness that energy and motivation but do not allow it to become destructive perfectionism. Alas, you will, but you will overcome that too. You think that if you meet your goals, happiness will descend. You are wrong. Happiness is a narcotic – it is a short lived hit, and cannot be truly appreciated without experiencing the down of the withdrawal symptoms. Adopt a Nietzschean stance and do not aspire to be happy, but aspire to have adventure. And that means ridding yourself of your innate conservatism. You will not be comfortable with that and will probably fail, but give it a go.

Third, you will form a quick inferiority complex as you move into the work place. At school you are top tier academically (it’s not a very academic school) and one of the strongest athletes with competence and achievement across many disciplines. You have county representation in a couple of sports. However, the workplace alters your sense of self. Most of your peers are graduates and three or four years older. They seem so smart, so intelligent, so worldly, such fun and more socially and sexually experienced. In addition, you rapidly move through the office phase of what is effectively an apprenticeship and you will have the chance to be on the floor of the stock exchange.

There, you will spot the class divide, in a way for which your Essex comprehensive school has not prepared you. You are intimidated by the public schoolboys who seem to have a presence, an authority and an air that they belong. It is why it will mean so much to offer that education to your children. You feel you do not belong, and watch the dress code and mannerisms like a hawk. Double cuff shirts, cuff links, Church’s brogues. You will be desperate to fit in. Being something of a social chameleon is no bad thing, but do not undervalue yourself. It is destructive and unhelpful.

Fourth, it will take you time to learn it, and some years of discomfort, but you are as good as these peers. You are not better, though, and you need to drop that occasional defensive arrogance towards people that do not share your views or aspirations. Know your worth, but be humble. You will regard your competitiveness as something to burnish and exercise like a muscle. It will not serve you well. Sure, you will earn good money and exciting promotions, but it is the quality of relationships that counts – the people who are friends, years after you have left the place you worked together. It is not a weakness to care about other people with whom you work.

Some time in the future the USA will be led by a black man as its President. His oratory is something you will admire. At a memorial service for a congressman, after he has left office, he will say this..“being a strong man also means being kind, that there’s nothing weak about kindness and compassion. There’s nothing weak about looking out for others. There’s nothing weak about being honorable. You’re not a sucker to have integrity and to treat others with respect.” You need to understand and apply these sentiments.

One thing you will not understand, but you need to know, is that having and keeping one job is not what will serve you best. In your first thirty years you will have only two employers. Later in your career you will have a crisis. You maintain that you were mistreated by your employer, but you definitely did make a mistake. Yes, you had been an exemplar as an employee for three decades, but employers and institutions have no soul. They are not there to be empathetic. They are inanimate and you must not confuse an employment institution with the people that work there. They are two different things. You now believe that it was due to burnout, and the evidence is quite compelling and you subsequently suffered a bit of a breakdown. You need to listen to your body more, it had been warning you.

What you will not know until your City career is over is that it was a consequence of your inability to listen. Your wife warned you that your behaviour was manic, but you persisted. You always felt you could make it to the next period of leave, never understanding that stress is cumulative and that in your deafness you had been taking less and less care of your health. You start your adult life playing semi-professional football and plenty of squash, but your fitness goes before your thirties and you drink too much and have added two stones by your mid forties.. 

So, let me emphasise: Fifth, listen. More. You do not have all the answers. People are not “always telling (you) what to do”; actually, they care about you and want to help. Your brother, many years later, will tell you that you can be and have been impatient, intolerant and judgmental. It is not insulting. It is an accurate observation. You can temper all these traits. Fortunately, when he says it, you will finally have matured sufficiently to appreciate it, rather than defend yourself against it. Keep listening.

Sixth, posture. At 18 years of age you are blessed with an athletic physique and an active lifestyle. Your early career is going to be spent on the floor of the London Stock Exchange, so you will be on your feet during market hours. Later in your career though, a regulatory and financial and technological revolution is going to turn you into a desk bound, screen watching blob. You will no longer be playing much sport and your work culture will be male dominant and with a pub and bar focus. Your posture will become slovenly. Your wife will tease you about your posture occasionally. You will hate it. Don’t. Or get over it, quickly.

She has your best interests at heart, and she is right. If you do listen you may have fewer of the problems with your back that start to plague you in your late forties and early fifties. It is only when you start doing regular pilates (and I know that right now you think that that is a ‘woman’s thing’, but you are wrong) and yoga, that you will wish you had taken note of her gentle chiding. Learn more about the value of yoga, of suppleness of mind and body and of how to breathe properly.

Seventh, invest in yourself. Right now, you are pleased that you have finished with education, which you only associate with one comprehensive school and a few classrooms. Years later it will become an itch that you need to scratch. When two of your best friends cut short City careers inside two years to take up university places, think a little harder about whether they might have recognised something in themselves, that you are choosing to ignore in yourself. You will take some professional exams successfully, but will spend many years thinking about and rejecting evening study for a degree. When you finally start an undergraduate degree in your fifties, you will discover the joy of learning. And it is a joy. 

Eighth, family. Most things in life you will either earn or find. Family comes to you unbidden. In it you will find true love. It will offer a host of other things too, but the positives far outweigh the negatives. Despite your sibling rivalry you will have few, probably no relationship, as lovingly intense as with your brother. You will have the love of two good parents who, mercifully, will still be alive approaching, and into their ninth decades. Not only alive but free from all but a few minor ailments and still in possession of their mental faculties. Few people are so blessed. Above all, you will have the love of three wonderful children. These are riches beyond value.

Ninth, football and cricket. Only games, but few things represent the world to you and you to the world as these sports. They teach you teamwork, respect, competition, fitness, overcoming disappointment, and celebrating highs. Many years from now sportsmen will be much better rewarded financially and will be widely quoted on things beyond the field of play. Your current heroes, Brooking and Gower, will have distinguished second careers. These sports will bring you many great friendships and your brother’s successes will make you a subject of interest that will help your stock market career.

You will play your way into MCC, and score a century for them. You will make centuries for Stock Exchange CC and your title winning Essex League club. You will score in a FA Cup tie. These sports will give you highs that only the birth of your children exceed. Value them, and the time and energy your parents gave to helping you become proficient as a player. However, although they become the sharp end of the entertainment industry, they remain ‘only sports’. When a World Cup winner like Buffon cannot escape depression, or another like Jonny Wilkinson, is plagued by dealing with perfectionism, even having won his World Cup, they need perspective.

Tenth, slow down. You are in a hurry to do everything. To grow up. To prove yourself. To leave home. To own a car, and then a property. Think about a plant. It grows when properly nurtured, but no amount of willing it to grow faster will help it. It will grow in its own sweet time to its own best advantage. Learn to think about that plant.

Eleventh, read. Read voraciously. It is lovely to share how much you have read with fellow bibliophiles. Read for pleasure, but enjoy how it educates. The great characters of good fiction all have something to teach you about the cycle of life, and how to view the world through alternative perspectives. Being able to do that is a great and valuable skill. At the moment you will not see a value in re-reading books, but that will come and you will see that it is not just the characters that offer different perspectives, but that the point of experience you have reached in your own life will affect what, and how you read.

You are about to plough through Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” as a distraction from your commute. It is tough going and at times you will wonder why you are bothering, but decades later you will still recall Raskolnikov, and his mental demons and contempt for the law, before he finds a path to redemption. Books do that to you. Read on, and love them all. Then, pass them on. You love the ownership of books, but share them. They will stimulate the best conversations, and the theory of reciprocity means you will get much more back than you give.

Twelfth, theatre. You love it. Go as often as you can. Drama holds a mirror up to society. It will always inform you, and most of the time it will entertain you. At some point in your future you will try to write plays. Your appreciation for what it takes to build dramatic tension will be defined by your own efforts, but you will always love great dialogue. None is finer than Shakespeare’s. You have studied three of his plays at school. You have many to come. Your favourites are two of those you have yet to see. That makes you lucky.

Always try to see the greatest actors. You are about to pass up the chance to see Ralph Richardson on stage. He will die before you are twenty. You will see all the theatrical knights after that including Gielgud, but you will remember missing Richardson.

A few more. Travel. You are a keen sportsman and so, you avoid winter holidays because you do not want to lose your place in the football teams you will play for. Years later you will love skiing and watch your children show great prowess and wish you had learned at an earlier age. In the summers your cricket commitments mean you avoid holidays too. It will take marriage for you to appreciate down-time, and the joys of seeing and appreciating different places and cultures. Your good financial fortunes will mean you travel well and comfortably. Try not to see the world in a ‘dressed-for-tourism’ way, but get off the beaten track when you can and get uncomfortable with having to use your awful linguistic skills. And then, think about improving those skills.

Smile. You think this is ridiculous but actually the act of smiling is good for your health. It exercises about half of the forty-plus facial muscles. A smile is something that gets returned more than it gets ignored. Sometimes that provokes a greeting and then a conversation. You tend to avoid eye contact. You are quite shy, and you tend to look down more than up. Hold your head up, engage eye contact and smile. It will make your world a better place, and it will be a better place for those around you.

Drink water. I know. You hate it. Decades later you still find it difficult to pour a glass from a tap, and you cannot conceive of people ordering water in pubs and restaurants. It will happen, though. And the water drinkers are right. You need to hydrate. You grew up with eczema, and you have a flaky scalp and ‘dry skin’. You suffer occasional headaches. Given you enjoy alcohol and you will be surprised by how much coffee you and everyone else will drink in future, you need to give your body a chance to balance its fluid intake. Drink more water.

Sleep more. I know that currently you share the view that it is somehow cool and macho to boast about how little sleep you get, and with Maggie running the country on an alleged four hour sleep per night regime it is tempting to see sleep as weak, but … wrong. It literally allows a brain to regenerate. It increases the reproduction of cells that form myelin – the insulating material found on nerve cell projections in both the brain and spinal cord. In the future you will become interested in psychoanalysis. The power and language of dreams will fascinate you. The opportunity for the unconscious to express will intrigue you. What happens when you have too little dream time? It makes it harder for repressed thoughts to be expressed and may, who knows, manifest in more destructive conscious and physical expressions. Sleep more.

Learn about nutrition. It is interesting. You will learn that there is more activity in the gut than in the brain. What you ingest will affect your health and your mood. Nobody will ever tell you what to do – you are not good at taking advice, and you need to get better, and you are stubborn, and you need to soften up – but if you learn enough of the facts and science for yourself, you are likely to do tremendous long term benefit to your health, by eating better.

Many times you will hear the expression, “its not the destination, it is the journey”. It will drive you mad. What does that really mean? To your irritation, you will later discover that it may have more than a ring of truth. It will likely take you decades and you will waste too much time focused on ‘outcomes’, but you will get there. From your late middle-aged perspective it would be great if you can get there sooner; it might allow you to be a little kinder to yourself.

Reputation. Hard won and easily lost. Your dad has given you some good advice about not being ‘pigeon-holed’ and about earning respect. Keep the advice close and repeat it to yourself regularly. Few things will please you more than the comments your peers give to your wife when you have your career crisis thirty years from now. You will see that crisis as a stain on your reputation, but will be left in tears by the compliments she is paid about your values and your integrity.

That brings me to friendships. You need them and you will discover you are extremely lucky with your’s. In your first year in the City you will become friends with a man who will be godfather to one of your children, as you will be to one of his. He will share his home with you when a house purchase falls through, and look after you when you are in a car accident. On your wedding day it is he who will know the right things to say to calm your wife’s nerves as she approaches the aisle.

Nearly forty years on, you are proud to call him a friend. Your two closest friends from your school A level studies will also extend their friendship with you to over forty years. As will your former next door neighbour, and a former Essex Schools U15 cricketer. It speaks volumes for the value of long duration friendships, but also about how people regard you, which you struggle to appreciate. Nurture friendships. Some have a natural life and die, so seek and welcome new ones, but really value people with whom you can share decades of experiences.

New skills. You are glad to be out of school and you have turned your back, for now, on education. As a sportsman you think you are pretty impressive and have little new to learn. You hate not being competent at things and until you develop some maturity it will stop you trying new things. You want to be someone in your adult life, and you will come to see that the people that most impress you are those with the deepest and broadest learning, and those sufficiently open-minded to keep absorbing new ideas, processes and skills.

With that in mind, take up a musical instrument and learn to dance. At 40 you will take up piano for a handful of years, but it is quite late. Try to pick up a guitar sooner. At parties you will notice how a guy who can turn to the piano/keyboards, or perform some magic on drums, or strum a guitar and accompany himself, will draw the attention of the prettiest girls. The man who gets most attention, though, is the one who can dance.

Like most men you avoid dancing and look suspiciously at those with some mastery. You think you have “two left feet”. Why? All small children dance when they hear music; they all have instinctive rhythm. So when and who tells them they cannot do it? When did you decide? Before your wedding you will discuss having dance lessons, but not get them booked. That is a great pity. Your first dance lesson will be in your fifties and glory be! You will enjoy it. Start now, and enjoy parties much more.

Get rid of the chip on your shoulder. Research the world. You are incredibly ignorant. Ahead lies the fall of the Berlin Wall and Mandela’s release in South Africa as the apartheid regime crumbles. You will see the legacy of the genocidal horrors in Cambodia for yourself in a few decades’ time and you will have repeat visits to India. Start researching global poverty, and the treatment of the victims of communism, genocide and apartheid, and appreciate that you have nothing to be chippy about.

Go easy on yourself. Follow Polonius’s advice. The journey, at least for the best part of the next forty years is an interesting one. You may even come to like yourself a little. You might tell Nietzschean fans that even discounting your conservatism, it has been quite a decent adventure…

On stress and burnout. A personal perspective

Woman, Library, Books, Study, Read

In Monday’s FT, Elizabeth Uviebinene has had an excellent piece describing burnout, and suggesting how to thrive in the office, published. She defines it as overwhelming exhaustion, accompanied by feelings of cynicism and detachment and a sense of lack of accomplishment. “A prolonged response to chronic stress that can lead to…depression”. I can tick all of those boxes, and all for the last eight or nine years of my career. Perversely, as defined by title and salary, they were most successful period I enjoyed, with one rather tricky interruption, that I think was catalysed by my burnout. Her article brought a number of things flooding back to me. 

I have thought long and hard about this. Not about writing it. It is quite cathartic. I am sure I suffered burnout, and I tried hard to think about my team’s individual risks of burnout, when I had managerial roles. What I thought long and hard about, was pushing the ‘publish’ and the ‘send’ buttons that make my experiences more public than I have ever thought they might or ought to be. Things, however, seem to be aligning for me. 

In my Birkbeck degree course in Business Psychology, I am about to study a module on mental health in the workplace. It covers everything from stress to work-life balance to neurodiversity. My continuing learning with both the British Psychotherapy Foundation and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, is making me more sensitive to the foundations of mental anxiety. And, I am now some months into my own analysis, which is making me a little more comfortable with sharing experiences, and trying to understand myself. 

In my City career, I had a number of demanding roles and I liked to put myself under pressure. In 2002, I topped a poll for being the best in my field in equity sector research marketing, thanks to working with a brilliant analyst, and being prepared to travel everywhere, and frequently, to ensure our clients had the best and most personal service. Only now do I realise how manic that period was, and how much pressure it put on my family life. 

At other times, I have had the privilege, but also the pressure of handling substantial financial capital (I was a proprietary trader from 2004 through the start of the Global Financial Crisis into 2008) and handling human and intellectual capital (I headed sales teams at three different investment banks and had responsibility for staff in London, Paris, Dusseldorf and Madrid, at different times). 

For the first thirty years of my career I was confident that I could handle any stress that I might have been subject to, and that, by contrast, I thrived on it. It appealed to the competitor in me, and I knew that I could outperform any rivals because of a capacity for hard work. It was a typically thoughtless, macho approach. I heeded no warning sign when the in-house doctor at the US bank employing me, responded to a regular visit from me by sending me to the Priory. I was told that I was not ill, but that I had a far from unusual streak of perfectionism and I was over-working. I was introduced to CBT and after a handful of sessions, I was on my merry way again. 

In 2012, my work style and the demands of my role, intruded on my life in a way that fundamentally altered me, my sense of trust and my relationships at home. After a thirty year, near-exemplary career, I made a mistake. I was at my desk at 5.56am (yes, I know; absurd), having left the office some time after ten pm the previous evening, with the memo that I had prepared about a corporate client’s major announcement. As Head of Sales, I was ‘over the wall’ with privileged information. I sent an e-mail. I sent another at 6.15am. The announcement was embargoed until a 7am ‘go public’ time. Trouble. Even when someone said to me about 6.30am, ‘did you mean to send that?’, I did not smell the trouble. Cognition break down. Probably stress.

Even today, I have no sense of why I pressed ‘send’ and what, if anything, was in my mind. But I was culpable. The upshot was that I was fired. Worse still, I was fired with the taint of ‘gross misconduct’. I have little doubt that the accumulation of stress contributed to my aberration. Perhaps, in today’s less stigmatised environment, I might have been treated differently and given a sabbatical and help. Instead I had a new world of financial devastation. (I still had a mortgage, my two youngest children in boarding school and no income, but also the ‘gross misconduct’ label meant that my years of accumulated worth of shares was wiped out. It cost me hundreds of thousands.) Financial devastation was joined by social humiliation and by emotional destruction.

I strongly suspect that the episode contributed to the subsequent break up of my marriage and to my divorce. When I read the FT article I found myself wishing I was back at my desk, but that I had decided that I had done enough preparation on the prior evening, and I would walk in at 7am. I might still be working for that same US bank – after all it was only my second employer in over thirty years. The City, though, is a remarkable place, and years of hard won respect can yield great benefits. A former colleague, now ensconced in a managerial role with a large French bank got in touch. Despite a CV that I thought would now exclude me from working again in banking, he interviewed me for a role in his sales team. I got back on the horse, albeit a little unsteadily. 

The new bank had a style that did not suit me. It was hierarchical. When I had my exit interview, I accused it of harbouring a culture of ‘institutional bullying’. I am sure it would dispute my perspective, but that was what I felt. Hindsight has taught me that I took out my anger at my previous employer’s actions on my new employer, which had rescued me from the scrapheap and may have wondered why it had bothered. Certainly, I tested the judgement of the man who offered me the job, in his peers’ eyes. I regret that. Generally, I behaved stroppily, and complained about all the iniquities, as I saw them. 

I did, however, try its in-house ‘Stress helpline’. It gave me a second introduction to CBT and a remarkable therapist who helped me understand my striving, and my compulsions and how destructive they could be. That helpline structure is confidential and kept from one’s managers. It is a brilliant resource. My managers could see I had demanding standards, but also that I was undermining what they had in place. They needed to think about how to utilise me. Thoughts about my mental health and welfare would not have come into it. 

The solution, after I had suggested that they simply decide that I had failed my six-month probation, was to promote me. I was back in charge of a sales team. I continued to chafe against the prevailing culture and was encouraged to consider a move to Asia, to set up an equities business in Singapore. As that played out I was being headhunted by a London based bank. Its office sat directly opposite the employer who had destroyed my wealth and reputation (as I saw it). Asia was of no interest now – this was my chance to show what had been missed by treating me unreasonably. 

My new employer was very bureaucratic (and still is, I am assured), and it had an inner cabal of decision makers. Management was remarkably narrow for such a large business. Promotions were in the gift of those who liked to promote people in their own image. Groupthink was rife, and contrary opinions were sometimes humoured, but rarely welcomed. Despite my extraordinary good fortune in being back in such an exciting, well-remunerated and responsible role, I believed that I had been employed as an ‘agent of change’ and started to try to improve where I could. I relished not being a ‘yes man’. Basically, ego getting in the way. 

In Elizabeth Uviebinene’s article are a number of recommendations for dealing with burnout. Sensitive to my past, I had promised myself that no job was going to prevent me putting my health first. When I joined the French, I made sure that I gave myself regular gym visits in my schedule. My self-discipline is poor, so the only way to ensure that is to commit to having a personal trainer. Then, you feel that you cannot let someone else down, and ensure you turn up on time. Post-gym I was always more enthused and dynamic. I felt the benefit, physically and mentally. 

My old industry suffers with a curse of presenteeism. Worse, when people are sat at a sales desk from pre-7am to 5.30pm or later, they are often unproductive for most of those hours. I wanted my team out of the office, seeing clients and freshening up their views. We started exploring the capacity for creating personalised sales packs to have on portable tablets, and working increasingly remotely. Above all, I wanted to give some staff, especially those exhausted by child care and longish commutes, the chance to work from home one day a week. They had to commit to read a couple of lengthy research pieces and to distil them for the purposes of their colleagues. Clients read little research, but read more than the people selling to them, who drown in daily output and who often restrict themselves to a summary from the front page, and a couple of salient points and charts to highlight. 

I wanted the ‘best informed about its own product’ team, and I wanted staff who would be invigorated by breaking their routines, and inspired by sharing their work with their colleagues – competing for how best to sell an idea, and to show some unheard of creativity. My seniors gave me plenty of rope. I was told that any sort of working from home was anathema, but that I could go ahead with the plan provided I never claimed I had authority for it, and if I could handle any of the likely negative consequences to come. 

I was encouraged to redesign the sales roles and to consider new specialisations working more closely with the other asset classes, with derivatives, and trying to drive greater consideration of ESG investing. My contention was it was a space that any bank could dominate given it had been badly covered until then, and I was convinced the ‘G’ bit – Governance – was where we could establish our eminence. It became clear that for all the pretence of looking for fresh ideas, thinking and strategy, really what was wanted was conformity and as little impact on the status quo as possible. Cognitive dissonance kicked in. Stressful. Equities was a small business in a group context, and should be seen but little heard. It was not a petri dish for culture change. 

I was also keen on the marriage of physical health and mental health. I encouraged gym visits (the bank had one on the site) and let it be known that I had regular yoga classes (not just because I found it beneficial, even though I do, but to make a statement). It did not take long before desk absences and gym visits became the negative topic highlighted in senior management’s ‘Town Halls’. References were made to ‘holiday camps’. This is the sort of cultural challenge that helping employees deal with chronic stress and anxiety, struggles to overcome. My petulant response was to keep trying to be a little different.

That manifested itself in resisting the creation of KPIs for the team. These are acute stressors. In a contracting industry, staff know that a redundancy round is never far away. The madness of KPIs is like ‘teaching to the test’. Creativity, which sales teams need, is smashed, and staff learn how to ‘game the system’ to protect their seat. Encouraging teamwork; it does not. It is another example of an obsession with scoring systems and of treating employees like engine cogs. It is back to Taylorism.

My argument, which fell on stony ground, was that the regulatory change that Mifid II presented the industry made most of the things that we thought we should be recording, redundant. Encouraging gym visits and ‘working from home’ could be just about tolerated as the mad thoughts of a delusional head of sales, but woe betide a man who does not love a KPI or several. A battle was underway and I lost it. Happily. 

Now I am eighteen months distant from my City career and I can think about what I learned and what I might have done differently. The thing that is most striking since my first day in 1982, is the changes in the length of the days and the disappearance of lunches. I am not convinced that the sandwich at the desk trend, is better for a business and its employees, than the often boozy lunch hours I grew up enjoying. I tried to encourage my sales team members to join me at a wine bar for short lunches rather than have interminable and frequent internal meetings fuelled by bad coffee. 

According to Michael Leiter, an Australian academic studying burnout, its prime cause is “a mismatch of how people want to work and the actual conditions of work.” See above for presenteeism. As Elizabeth Uviebinene highlights, we are victims of an apparent desire to ‘optimise’ our lives (see above re KPIs), and quotes BuzzFeed writer Anne Helen Petersen, who wrote “we’re deeply in debt, working more hours for less pay and security, struggling to achieve the same living standards as our parents, operating in psychological and physical precariousness”. 

I am proud of my City career, but wish I had been more sensitive to the mental demands it was making on me, and how that affected my relationships outside of work. If anyone thinks I can help them through their own feelings of stress, burnout, anxiety, I should be delighted to hear from them.  Selfishly, it may help me with my university module, but my primary motivation is because I would not want anyone to lose a career (and some of their financial security) for the sin of being at the desk at 5.56am and sending an untimely e-mail.