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"For 20 years of my career I wasn't living - I was surviving"

MQ Trustee Chris experienced chronic stress, anxiety and depression as a lawyer working in an international law firm. Now, he’s passionate about improving the culture around mental health in the workplace – and using science to back it up.

I think, like a lot of people, the seeds of my experience with mental illness were sown in my childhood. I had a very difficult relationship with my dad, who struggled with me and my sisters coming between him and my mum. To him, I was an irritant at best and at worst I was Public Enemy Number One – so I grew up with a view that the world was a difficult place. 

I took that view to school, to university, and then to the workplace as a lawyer in the City. I’ve worked at the same firm for 35 years, but for 20 of those I wasn’t really living, but surviving.

In the earlier years of my career, there was a nagging sense that things weren’t right.

I experienced a lot of stress and anxiety; the hours were long, I was losing sleep worrying about work and I struggled with the conflict that came with the job. Lots of this manifested physically. I often had a stiff neck and remember feeling lightheaded to the point where I was surprised I didn’t pass out. 

I began self-medicating with alcohol, which turned into a reliance on alcohol, then a powerlessness over it.

Alcohol helped to change the way I felt, bringing relief and alleviating my symptoms after a long, difficult day. 

The infrastructure of promotions at work helped keep me on track and gave me something to hold onto. But when I was promoted to an Equity Partner, it felt like I was standing on the head of a flagpole, knowing it was only a matter of time before I fell off.

Shortly after, I took a break from work one evening to go to the gym, collapsed and was rushed to hospital. Having had every test imaginable done, the consultant told me, “I've got great news – there’s nothing wrong with you.”

That was the last thing I wanted to hear – I wanted there to be some rare, exotic disease that I could announce to the world to explain why I felt like I did. Why I needed to drink to cope with life. 

This despair quickly turned into full-blown depression.

I ended up in bed for three months, crying for most of that time. I couldn’t do anything – not even something as simple as deciding what newspaper to buy. I felt like I’d never be able to work again, support my wife and children, or be able to look anyone in the eye. Everything had crumbled. I couldn’t imagine things returning to normal, but I knew I couldn’t cope with feeling that way forever. 

I remember the psychiatrist describing my depression as the equivalent of a serious heart attack; it would take a long time to get over. He prescribed antidepressants, which thankfully helped. 

When I returned to work in 1996, mental illness wasn’t something we spoke about.

The narrative was that I’d been working too hard and needed to recharge my batteries, and I was happy to go along with it. I felt I needed to make a radical change, which is why I went to our Singapore office on secondment a few years later. 

I hoped that doing something different would help – but the truth is, the same problems travelled with me. My alcoholism ramped up again, and with drinking excessively came the danger of doing and saying things I would later regret.

I hit rock bottom again and finally made the decision to radically change my life.  

I returned to London and proposed that I move to a career in the firm that wouldn’t make me ill. There were plenty of cynics, but I’m enormously grateful for the patience and support that allowed me to become Chairman of our India office, which has been brilliant. 

The role has given me a platform to not only help our business grow, but also to share my experience of stress, anxiety and depression, and advise on best practise to make improvements to mental health in workplaces.

We need to move away from the idea that ‘workplace mental health’ is different to mental health.

1 in 4 of us will experience mental illness, and some of us just happen to work. We need to change the culture in our workplaces to look after people more and make it easier to talk about.

We also need to recognise that mental health is just as important as physical health, and that it can be life-threatening. If someone needs help, they must get it – even if that means taking time out. There also needs to be more signposting, so people know what help is available and what’s right for them.

This is where MQ comes in.

As this space grows, we need to understand which apps and advice are backed by science. And when it comes to signposting, we need greater clarity about which therapies or treatments are most effective for certain people so we can provide more targeted support. I was very lucky that the first drug that I was given helped, but many people go through months and months of trial-and-error. I can’t even begin to think how terrible that would be.

Medication undoubtedly saved my life. I’ve done the experiment of trying to come off it, but that didn’t work. And now, I’m one of those people who gratefully each morning takes some medicine that helps the production of serotonin in my brain. There are a few side effects, but frankly, I'm prepared to trade.

Last updated: 4 November 2019

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