Blog: “I needed help from others – but I bounced back”

Date posted: May 10, 2021
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David Brewin

In this blog to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, former head of tax at accounting firm EY, David Brewin, recounts his own experience of mental health during his career and considers what MHPP is doing to help companies look after their employees’ mental health.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing – and I know now that I have suffered from bouts of depression from my late teens, but just didn’t realise that was what it was. Every so often I would feel lacking in any energy and any engagement with other people, but I had no reference point, and I just thought that was me.

As time progressed, to the outside world I suppose I had it all. My career was going really well, I was a partner of a major professional firm at a young age, I was married, had two kids and life looked good. Everything was going well – except it wasn’t.

Fast forward a few years and things were going well. I had met someone else through work and had been through a divorce which is never easy, but the new relationship was good and I was progressing quickly up the corporate ladder.

But then a combination of factors derailed me. The relationship blew up and I was given a major and challenging job. It was in my skill set but it was a major re-organisation and there were big decisions that impacted on people’s livelihoods in a significant way.

I had done similar before and could make hard decisions but the combination of all the factors took its toll.

I clearly remember sitting at my desk thinking “I don’t know what is happening here”. I just couldn’t do it, and I sat there almost frozen. In the past when things away from work had not been going well, I could always do my job. But not this time.

I was sitting there at my desk in London and my secretary, who worked in Leeds, called me and said there was a car downstairs and there was an appointment booked for me at The Priory. I am sure people had mentioned things to her, but she had also picked up the signs and she acted. I didn’t argue.

The doctor I saw wanted to admit me then – I didn’t want to do that at the time but I got through Christmas and realised it was not working, so was booked in for a month.

I didn’t know what to expect. By far the most powerful thing was sitting in a group session and sharing our experiences. I was listening to people and I was working out what to say when it got around to me. I am a senior professional who has been in meetings all my working life and I know what to say – when and to who. You work out how to play the game.

I threw the switch and off I went and felt I was revealing all, but they saw straight through me and the guy next to me, who I am still in touch with today, put his hand on my shoulder and told me in no uncertain terms I had to tell the truth. It came out then – everything, and that was the first step back to myself.

I had developed an intuitive sense of who I needed to be and what I had to develop for my colleagues, my clients and my bosses – but I’d forgotten what I wanted and needed. However, there was never a sense that I did not want to go back to work. My doctors had told me that work was good for me, I knew it was good for me. That was maybe counter-intuitive, but I knew that sitting about at home would have been the worst thing for me.

When I went into hospital, I was head of tax in the UK for EY and was on the main board, but when I came out of hospital, I went back to being tax partner in Manchester. I was now working with people who just six weeks before I had been their boss’s, boss’s boss.

I had no clients because I had been in management, and I am sure a lot of people – including me – felt it was a matter of time before I was fired. It was going to be very hard, and EY is a business and I had to justify my salary. Some of my good mates have told me they thought I was done for professionally.

EY were supportive, the senior leadership people stayed close to me and in that sense, I was fortunate that I had been in a senior position. This was more than a decade ago when the awareness of mental health was nowhere near the level it is now. Would I have got the same support if I was further down the hierarchy? I am not sure.

But I did bounce back. People had faith in me, they knew I could do a good job and I moved from the role in Manchester to London. The scale of my work moved from the UK, to Europe and then globally.

I was at EY for another eight years before retiring and now do several non-executive roles.

Nowadays I very much know who I am, and people can like it or lump it – and I am much more aware of stressful situations. I learned that your body tells you things, if only you will listen. Men particularly often choose not to listen. They don’t pay attention to the headaches, the tightening of their chests, their shoulders, lack of sleep. I now listen.

However, there is a misunderstanding that stress is all bad. Peaks of stress are good. If you are in business and you go in to a pitch, a lot is riding on you, you have to perform. That is a stressful hour, but it’s not bad in itself, if you come down from that. What is harmful is constant stress which permeates everything.

It is the same with sadness. Life is not always sweet and nice and challenges occur. It is part of the human condition to be sad on occasion and we don’t want to medicalise that.

Working with companies and organisations – as MHPP is doing – really is key. There is a great deal of well-intentioned, and genuine talk at the top of companies but it is essential that, as it passes down through organisations, it does not become rhetoric.

Things have improved immeasurably in recent years. Personally, I felt no stigma from colleagues at EY. The person I felt the most stigma from was me. There is some self-acceptance that we are fragile human beings and we need to take care of ourselves and be kind to ourselves.

When I present on the subject now, the one thing I leave people with is that they have to be kind to themselves. Some of the things we say to ourselves about ourselves, we would never dream of saying to other people, and that needs to change.

This blog was first published on the Mental Health and Productivity Pilot website which is funded by Midlands Engine and is helping employers across our region to understand the link between mental health and productivity by galvanising their employees’ engagement with a package of impactful resources which work towards ensuring that employees are happy, satisfied and able to thrive at work.

For the latest on our region, subscribe to Midlands Matters, the official newsletter of the Midlands Engine.
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