The Priory in Roehampton has been called Britain’s Betty Ford Clinic. It became a crucial part of every celebrity’s “journey” through fame, hosting Kate Moss (treated for “exhaustion” after splitting up from actor Johnny Depp), Susan Boyle, Antonio Carluccio (admitted after accidentally stabbing himself in the chest), Robbie Williams and Amy Winehouse.

But while the famous might have forged The Priory’s reputation, they’re not the ones paying most of its bills. The past few years have seen the Priory’s owner, US private equity giant Advent International, spread the brand.

Alongside the south-west London hospital which first opened in 1872, the Priory now owns a chain of 49 hospitals that admit 30,000 people a year across the UK — it has become Britain’s biggest private provider of mental healthcare services. That title helped the Priory’s revenues rise four per cent to £480.8 million last year. Now it reckons the next lucrative trend in mental (un)health is stressed City suits.

A gleaming new clinic on Fenchurch Street will open its doors before Christmas, the home of the Priory’s first psychotherapy centre. It’s no coincidence that the first of what the Priory hopes will be many such facilities is based just down the road from the gleaming headquarters of management consultancy Accenture and insurer Lloyd’s of London. This is the heart of shoulder-hunched, heart-pounding stress-ville.

The centre has 15 counsellors and psychotherapists who will offer treatments ranging from cognitive behavioural therapy to “eye movement desensitisation reprocessing”. They will help tackle the soaring levels of anxiety and stress — and related health problems — spreading faster than flu among City executives.

The Priory hopes that the City’s biggest employers might bulk-buy deals to send their staff to its new clinic. Tony Urwin, occupational psychologist and managing director of the new Fenchurch Street centre, says: “There’s a growing demand by large UK corporates to invest in the mental wellbeing of their employees and maintain London’s reputation as one of the world’s top financial centres — as well as one of the emotionally healthiest. The centre will see clients for mental health issues such as stress anxiety and depression, through to issues such as sleep disorders, OCD, phobias and even eating disorders and addictions.”

London’s biggest firms began to take notice of the impact of stress when it started to strike their top executives. Sir Hector Sants, the man hired to lead the clean-up at Barclays, quit just a month after taking sick leave from his £3 million job as a result of exhaustion and anxiety.

Lloyds Banking Group’s chief executive Antonio Horta-Osório took a leave of absence from one of the biggest jobs in the City a few years ago due to executive stress, and checked into The Priory for a week.

More than 3.5 million days were lost to sick days for stress, depression and anxiety in London and the South-East alone last year, according to the Office for National Statistics. The impact of endless all-nighters for junior staff was also put in the spotlight following the death of an intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in the City last year.

Soon after, the Bank of England pledged to attack the stigma surrounding mental illness, reporting that many of its 3,000 staff had reported suffering from stress since the financial crisis. It now has one full-time and two-part time counsellors working in-house. Other high-pressure workplaces quickly followed suit. Banks including Goldman Sachs and Lloyds, legal firms Clifford Chance and Linklaters, and accountants Deloitte, KPMG and PWC have set up the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA), which aims to offer speedy, easy help to those who need it.

The CMHA is backed by Mind, the mental health charity, whose head of workplace wellbeing Emma Mamo says: “In the City, the long hours and at times unsupportive culture can lead to unmanageable stress. Commonly cited causes at work include excessive workload, unrealistic targets, threat of redundancy and poor management. Since the recession more people than ever are getting in touch with Mind because they’re worried about stress or losing their job if they tell their employer that they’re struggling. Employers need to create an open culture where staff feel able to discuss their wellbeing.

“We’re starting to see City firms recognise that small, inexpensive changes can make a huge difference — not just to members of staff under stress but to all employees. Companies that prioritise the mental wellbeing of their staff reap rewards in terms of loyalty, morale and productivity — not to mention reduced sickness absence.”
Of course, for many firms its all about the bottom line. There has been a rush to sign up telephone advice services that allow any member of staff to easily seek help for their problems.

“They’re pushing it hard,” says one City trader, who cynically adds, “I think it’s because it’s cheaper than us having a break-down. There are posters with a mental health helpline number on so we can speak to private counsellors quickly. They hope that by doing this problems won’t escalate to us taking sick leave.

“My friend at a US bank said they’ve got an in-house shrink, just so they can talk to someone without actually having to leave work. But the sad fact is, if you’ve got a problem and your boss is an old-school, unsympathetic banker, then they’re not going to care unless you collapse at your desk.”

But Urwin, of the Priory, claims things are changing. “Stress and mental health issues have always been an issue in the City, mainly because the personality type of people working there means they are more susceptible,” he says. “City workers tend be very high-functioning, competitive, driven, and used to succeeding. When things start to spiral out of control they tend to drive themselves even harder and are less likely to ask for help from others, who they fear will see them as weak. But tangible personal and financial losses are forcing managers to take proper notice of the issue.”

This is backed up by figures from the Centre for Mental Health, which claims mental ill health costs UK employers £26 billion a year through sickness absence, lower productivity and recruitment costs. As firms begin to consider investing in ways to stem those losses, you can see why the Priory, which currently has a two per cent share of Britain’s annual £14.4 billion spending on mental healthcare, according to analysts Laing and Buisson, is building this part of its business.

But progress is slow. One City analyst says she’s never been offered help or mental health support, despite regularly working 14-hour days. “The only time anyone in the office talked about mental health was when one guy had a breakdown,” she says. “And then the talk was just about who was going to get stuck with his work.”

Urwin warns that high-flying women are especially at risk. “The pressures are particularly hard. The number of women in the City has soared in the past year, and they are juggling family pressures — children or trying to care for elderly parents — with huge corporate portfolios, or have really busy back-office roles. There is often a considerable toll on family life when stress tips into more serious mental health problems.”

By Lucy Tobin, as published in the London Evening Standard on 29th October 2014.

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