Stressed-out or just over-doing it?

It seems that António Horta-Osório,CEO of Lloyds, will be returning to work in early January after being off work for two months.  But off work with what?  At the moment there seems to be a concerted effort on the part of the Lloyds board, and possibly the business media, to deny that there was anything sinister about his absence.  In other words, that Horta-Osório was not suffering from ‘stress’ or any other kind of psychological problem.   To cite Nils Pratley’s  piece in the Guardian 15 Dec 2011:

It turns out that it wasn’t stress that has kept António Horta-Osório off work for the past six weeks. Lloyds Banking Group’s chief executive simply “overdid it,” says chairman Sir Win Bishcoff. Bischoff is so confident that the “very mild” problem will not return that he has offered to resign if he’s wrong, or least to consider his own position.

So there we have it: Horta-Osório may not have slept for five days, which is why he checked himself into the Priory, and presumably he was working extremely hard both during and prior to this period of insomnia, but there is no way this is ‘stress’.   Presumably, then, it’s OK for someone in Horta-Osório’s position to ‘overdo it’ but not to be suffering from stress.

This seems to chime perfectly with Tom Whipple’s observations in his Times article on 8 November 2011, which I have referred to several times already.  In other words, the one thing you cannot admit to in the City environment (with its ‘macho culture’) is to be suffering from stress or any other kind of mental health problem.

But why?  Why is it such a taboo subject, even though, according to the mental health professionals that Whipple and other commentators have spoken to, mental health problems are so widespread in the City?  In many other sectors, especially in the health and social care field, it is quite acceptable for employees, even at very senior level, to go off sick with stress, and not to be stigmatised for it.  So why not in the financial sector?  Why is it that to live a life that to anyone else would be viewed as being at least mildly pathological, i,e. long hours, not having enough sleep, not having a life outside of work, is ‘acceptable’ to those within this environment, as long as it is not defined as being pathological or psychologically unhealthy?

I have touched on possible answers to this before but perhaps it’s worth bearing in mind the historical and cultural stereotypes that surround mental illness – and how these have changed over the centuries.  In my view, in spite of the questionable accuracy of some of its historical detail, Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation still rates as one of the best expositions on this subject.

A key aspect of Foucault’s argument is that of exclusion.  Around the time of the Renaissance the mad became excluded from society, just as lepers had been for centuries before.   This exclusion took many forms, which changed over time.  First there were the Narrenschiff, the Ships of Fools, then later on the mad, along with criminals, the poor and other ‘undesirables’ were confined in various institutions, including the workhouses and prisons.  As the Enlightenment progresses there is a recognition that the ‘mad’ are, in fact, ‘ill, and should be treated as such.  So we witness the birth of psychiatry, psychology and psychoanalysis, along with a whole battery of therapeutics.

Although the ‘mad’, the mentally ill, are not nowadays cast adrift in Narrenchiff, they are excluded in other ways.  And nowhere more so, it would seem, than in the corporate and financial heartlands…..