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“1 in 10 people leave a job due to stress – 6 years ago, I thought I might be one of them”

Miles Kean joined Coutts in 2001, where he is now an Executive Director. His own experience of anxiety ignited a desire to make a positive change – and led him to launch the company’s first wellbeing scheme to support anyone struggling with mental health issues. On National Stress Awareness Day, he shares what he’s learned.

When did you first experience anxiety – what was going on in your life at that time? 

It was around 10 years ago, at the time of the financial crisis. I went to a lecture by an American professor in 2007 who essentially called what was going to happen – it was very unsettling and, looking back, I think that’s where it started.

A year later I became really concerned about the whole financial system - it felt like everything was about to implode. The financial crisis was on every news bulletin and everyone was talking about it. I pictured anarchy on the streets, read articles about bankers being dragged from their homes and lynched, and some of my clients were talking about stock piling food and bolstering security. At Coutts we were at the epicentre of it, as a subsidiary of RBS. I became extremely anxious and took the world on my shoulders.

Was there a point where you realised something was going on?

At one stage I didn’t sleep for about three weeks and began to lose control of my mind - it felt like one long, slippery slope into oblivion. Everything built to a crescendo until I left the office one morning, went home and finally broke down. My wife took me straight to the GP and I went from there directly to the Priory for three weeks, where they got me sleeping, eating and resting. I bounced back to work in less than a month, in hindsight a big mistake.

3 years later, after a period of rapid change, I became really anxious again. The old feelings returned but I ignored the signs and started coming into work earlier and leaving later. Everything blew up and I ended up back in the Priory. I thought I might never work again, which was very frightening.

Somehow I got back to work, but after another year I got to a point where I couldn’t continue. I knew that I had to take time out to recover properly. The previous two times, I hadn’t actually changed anything and I realised I had to do things differently.

How did your colleagues react?

My boss was brilliant. He was aware I was struggling, but he knew I was a hard worker and that I wanted to get better. He encouraged me to speak to Occupational Health - they referred me to a psychologist who diagnosed me with a generalised anxiety disorder. He described it as continually going into 'code-red' mode and blowing everything out of proportion until your mind can’t cope and you shut down. His diagnosis was spot on.

I was out of work for three months. I felt I needed to go back after two, but my brother insisted I took another month to recover. He was so right.

During that time, I got into fitness and also had Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which was so helpful. It was like a complete rewire and reboot of my mind. I realised there were lots of things I worried about which I had no control over, and also that worrying stops action and constructive thought - but ultimately doesn’t achieve anything. Understanding how the brain functions – when no-one had ever explained it to me - helped me process my thoughts. Now I feel ten times stronger than I was. 

Was it difficult to go back to work?

Yes - I remember shaking as I walked in. It’s very, very exposing but, by the time I turned on my computer, I already had emails welcoming me back, which made a huge difference.

I was nervous and it took time to settle, but soon I started outperforming like I used to, and people noticed. I started getting taps on the shoulder and people began to confide in me when they were getting stressed and anxious. From my own experience I could tell where they were on the wellbeing curve and I began to sign-post people to the employee assistance programme or their GP when I thought they shouldn’t be in work.

This began happening far too much, which got me thinking that we needed to do something on a wider scale. 

How did the wellbeing scheme start?

A few months before, there had been a really poor staff survey which showed a high amount of stress in the workplace. It was more proof there was an issue we had to address.

I joined forces with another colleague, Mike Heyworth, who thankfully hadn’t had the same experience as me but really cared about people and done a lot of work on stress in the workplace. We looked at all the resources available at RBS and found there were brilliant guides on stress, anxiety etc. but the vast majority did not know about them. The whole agenda fell between different areas of the business - it needed profile and ownership. We visited charities and other financial institutions and saw there was a lot of interest in addressing mental health in the workplace but also that it wasn’t easy to do.

When we presented our strategy to the board, I shared my story and they were really taken aback. They hung on every word and agreed something had to happen, starting by funding a scheme to give everyone a Nuffield health check. We got the Leadership Team on board and created an online Communication Hub where people could access practical videos, personal stories and links to resources. We also recruited a network of 90 ambassadors who are trained in mental health first aid and available for someone who needs help, alongside line managers. Their role is also to signpost all the great resources our parent company has put together.

How has the strategy taken off?

Launching the strategy was a game changer. There were 250 people in the room and as many listening online. I shared my story and explained that I’ve lived to tell the tale - but one in four people in that room would experience some kind of mental illness and we must improve our response. From there, it really ignited – the reaction was amazing.

There are still stresses in the business, but it's a much more open culture. People feel they can be themselves and actually talk if they’re not okay. It was key to focus on line managers as we felt we needed to influence the influencers. We talked through the strategy with every line manager in the bank and highlighted the importance of their own resilience and mental health.

Miles and Mike at the Employee Wellbeing AwardsMiles and Mike at the 2018 Employee Wellbeing Awards, where Coutts & Co won the Wellbeing Award for Leadership and Culture

Are there any statistics about mental health – from a workplace or a personal perspective - that stick with you?  

The fact 1 in 10 people leave a job due to stress really strikes me. Then, from a personal point of view, there’s some German research which looked into the percentages of things people worry about, and how often they actually happen. 94% of the things people worry about never happen – it’s completely useless.

When we set out, everyone told us the hardest thing to change would be “culture” – yet from one staff survey to the next this increased by 24%.  We haven’t yet altered the “stress at work” statistic as much, so statistics are important in guiding our focus.

Why do you think research is important for mental health?

What stands out to me is how massive mental health is as a global issue - how much it costs on a financial and a personal level. The fact that it’s such a huge problem and gets so little funding strikes me as totally ridiculous. Research is absolutely critical if we want to improve our understanding – look how much cancer research has developed since it started 50 years ago.

That's why I talk to people about MQ’s work. We have a long way to go, but we have to start somewhere – and if you look at some of the early findings from mental health research, they’ve been just brilliant.  

What questions about your own experience do you think research could help to answer?

I think the big one for me is that first question you’re always asked - does it run in the family? Invariably it does, and it makes me wonder if there are common genes that increase a person’s risk – and if we could find out more and develop specific treatments to address that - it would be amazing. If MQ’s research could one day lead to drug development to target specific areas, that would be just incredible.

To read more about Coutts' wellbeing scheme click here

Last updated: 23 January 2019

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