The Mindful Business Charter – horses and lush green grass
At 40, UK high-flying senior law firm partner Richard Martin had it all, but while on a French family holiday in 2011 driving on a busy Paris ring road, he felt dreadfully ill and just stopped. It was the start of a nervous collapse brought on by years of stress and strains which led to utter mental exhaustion.
Text: Chris Graeme
There is an old farming truism which says that the more lush green grass you give a horse, the more it will eat until it eventually makes itself ill. This applies to dedicated and work-conscious professionals too. The more work they are given, the more they will accept, until one day something can simply snap.
As a successful employment lawyer, Richard Martin had been aware that some of the people he dealt with were showing signs of stress and strain, and clearly weren’t very well. Martin would tell them that he would deal with the legal aspects of their case, but would also suggest that they get professional medical help.
Then aged 41 (Richard is now 50 with three grownup children aged 18, 20 and 23) he was a successful high-flying lawyer and partner in a famous London law firm and leading a large team. He sat on the management committee and was being lined up as a managing partner.
I was a ‘yes’ man
“I had it all! Great job, lovely wife and kids and the big house. But I was also one of those people who say yes to everything, including getting involved in the community,” said Richard.
In fact, anyone looking from the outside would have thought how well Richard Martin was doing, and indeed he was …. On the outside that is.
Little did he know that he himself would fall victim to stress from overwork. “In Paris, at the time, I had no idea what was going on. I thought I was going to die. I felt out of control, my breathing was all over the place, I felt sick and all I could think of was escaping from where I was,” Richard explains.
Richard stopped the car in the middle of the lane, got out and started walking across several lanes of fast-moving Paris traffic. “A French policeman stopped him and asked me what I was doing and I didn’t have an answer.”
It was a panic attack, leading to a breakdown and the start of a huge change in his life which would begin with a month in a psychiatric hospital where he met people who were just like him; ordinary and often well-educated and successful professionals who, for one reason or another, could no longer cope with high levels of sustained stress.
It can happen to anyone
In fact, Richard Martin is not the first successful high-profile professional to warn about the toll that stress and lack of boundaries in our working lives can have on our physical and mental heath.
Portuguese banker and Lloyds boss António Horta-Osorio went public in 2019 with his personal experience of how workplace stress can affect anyone.
The year was 2011 and banks were still reeling from the ravages of the great financial crisis with the European sovereign debt crisis looming on the horizon.
The UK’s largest high-street bank, Lloyds, was in poor financial health and the man charged with returning it to profit was under huge pressure to turn the bank around and the stress started to affect his own health.
“I was very mindful that the bank was in a very weak position to face adversity. It was a problem that was going around my mind constantly, which led me to sleep less and less. And the less and less sleep progressively led me to exhaustion, and then to not sleeping at all, which was a form of torture so I had to address it and I did,” he said back then.
With the consent and understanding of the board, he took eight weeks off to recuperate before returning himself, and ultimately the bank, to health.
That personal experience led him to re-evaluate the importance of mental health for all of the bank’s 65,000 employees.
Senior executives, including Horta-Osorio, underwent a mental health awareness programme while thousands of mental health first aiders were trained throughout the bank with an online portal being set up for staff. They were encouraged to use it if they were struggling with issues either at work or in their private lives.
The bank also increased their employees’ insurance cover for mental health to the same level as that of physical health.
The Mindful Business Charter
- Richard Martin’s mental health experiences led him to get involved with the Mindful Business Charter, initially a collaboration between leading banks and law firms committed to driving change in how people work.
The Mindful Business Charter, which aims to create healthier and more effective ways of working, was born out of discussions between the in house legal team at Barclays and two of their panel law firms, Pinsent Masons and Addleshaw Goddard, along the following lines:
The people working in their businesses are highly driven professionals;
We do pressured, often complex, work which requires high levels of cognitive functioning;
We thrive on that hard work and pressure;
In amongst that pressure and hard work there is stress, some of which is unnecessary;
When we are stressed we work less productively, and it is not good for our health; and
If we could remove that unnecessary stress, we would enable people to work more effectively and efficiently, as well as be happier and healthier.
The charter rests on a number of key pillars: openness and respect, smart meetings and mailings, respecting rest periods and mindful delegation.
Richard Martin who is a mentor and consultant for the workplace behavioural consultancy Byrne Dean says the global Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated stress and mental strain at work, making the need and importance of the charter even greater.
“I know there are times when I’ve felt under pressure. If you take what we normally have to deal with, and then throw in the global pandemic with all the remoteness, isolation and the worries that go with it, we are certainly now seeing an increase in prevalence of mental health issues in the workplace in all sorts of different ways,” he explains.
Richard Martin continues “We will not be going back to anything like what we had before the pandemic anytime soon. We are seeing an increase in the prevalence of mental health conditions and a reticence to talk about it because employees worry that if they do, their bosses will think worst of them and treat them less favourably because there is still so much stigma surrounding mental health”.
Chris Barton, CEO of the British-Portuguese Chamber of Commerce (BPCC)* which has been thinking about stress at the chamber for several years, agrees, saying he sees more people working longer hours than they did in the workplace, starting earlier, finishing later and working at weekends.
“I also see more flexible working, particularly during Covid-19, whereby people start at hours that are convenient to themselves, working later in the day and perhaps getting out of sync with a normal working day which they would have working from a building,” he adds.
Martin says that when stressed our brains don’t work well, the net result is blood is diverted away from or brains as the pre-frontal cortex is affected by the flight or fight reflex. “Long term persistent stress is not good for our work quality for our clients or employees,” he reflects.
Boundaries and communication
One of the 65 signatories to the Mindful Business Charter, which was launched in 2018 and includes companies like Lloyds Bank, RBS, Addleshaw Goddard, Pinsent Masons, Clifford Chance, Ashurst, Simmons and Simmons, Eversheds Sutherland, Norton Rose Fulbright, Baker McKenzie and Hogan Lovells, is Barclays Bank PLC. At Barclays they wanted to do more to fight the negative impacts of stress.
“There are different sources of stress — some from our own heads, some from the work we do in a high-pressure environment, and some from the way we work with each other,” says Richard.
Martin explains that we don’t mean to cause stress for others, but often we do, and then we don’t talk about it. “If we talked about it, we could pinpoint cases of unnecessary stress and do something about it, and Barclays recognised their role as a significant client in this area.”
Martin says its all about removing unnecessary stress, creating healthy boundaries, knowing when to say no, and being aware of the impact of what we’re doing and of how we communicate in terms of e-mails and meetings.
“Let’s only have meetings when we need to, invite only those people who need to be there and when they need to be there, avoid meetings at lunchtime, be mindful of timezones, don’t cancel meetings 5 minute before they are due to start, and allow people to join meetings in a way that is more appropriate for them. Think about if you really need to send that email and if it is really necessary to copy 50 people who really don’t need to get them,” he says.
Richard Martins concludes by warning that Covid-19 has removed the last vestiges of any boundaries and healthy working practices we once had.
“The charter started in the sectors where these problems were most evident; the legal and financial sectors in London, but its signatories now include companies from other sectors and has spread to non-UK organisations, some of them international.
“It’s not about slacking and taking it easy. It’s about working hard and doing so in the most healthy and sustainable way. Their energy needs to be used as effective and healthily as possible. Above all, it’s about respecting boundaries and begins with a conversation and the courage to be human and vulnerable,” concludes Richard Martin.
*This article was based on the webinar ‘The Mindful Business Charter’ organised by the British-Portuguese Chamber of Commerce (BPCC). For more information on BPCC webinars and activities or joining the BPCC go to www.https://bpcc.pt/