It’s confusing. Until last week, anyone with the faintest appreciation of the difference between strivers and skivers would have known, instantly, where to assign the leading banker Sir Hector Sants, after his 35 years of top striving in places such as UBS, Credit Suisse First Boston, the FSA and now Barclays, where he is head of compliance.
In the light of this contribution, heroic even within the banking world of insane hours, morbid pressure and sick interns, Sir Hector is the last person you would expect to find at home of a weekday – to the disgust of any neighbours who registered George Osborne’s words at the 2012 Conservative conference.
“Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?”
Obviously, Sir Hector’s hard-working neighbours should bear in mind, as they check on the elevation of his blinds prior to departing for the day’s striving, that he is a clever and resourceful man, positively knighted for it. Is it not possible, for a man of his abilities that he will cunningly raise any blinds visible from the street to a level compatible with Protestant/coalition ethics, before retreating to a rear bedroom for a morning in front of Jeremy Kyle?
Moreover, the banker is not – yet, anyway – sleeping off a life on benefits, but taking a temporary break. “Unfortunately,” Barclays announced last week, “Hector has been diagnosed as suffering from exhaustion and stress – the cumulative effect of five years at the FSA during a tumultuous period and having thrown himself headlong into his Barclays role since the beginning of 2013.” Far from indicating skiving proclivities, as a similar absence would naturally suggest in, say, a teacher, civil servant or call-centre worker, Sir Hector’s indisposition illustrates his preternatural tendency to over-strive. Or, as this statement emphasises, to “throw himself headlong” into work, whether in pursuit or on behalf of the company fined £290m for Libor rigging.
Or possibly, as with his peer, the Lloyds chief executive, António Horta-Osório, who, eight months into his job, was laid low by “sleep-deprivation” and exhaustion”, Sir Hector’s difficulties only confirm the horrifying prospect confronting anyone, even a stress-tested financier, tasked with rehabilitating a dodgy British bank. “The bank was in worse shape than I thought when I took the job,” Horta-Osório told the FT last week. And now Barclays may have rigged more than was previously dreamed of.
Even so, given continuing discrimination against people with mental illness and, added to that, the hatred of weakness that makes the culture of the City so special, it is likely that some Barclays shareholders, and even some of Sir Hector’s Barclays colleagues, are now wondering if exhaustion and stress really justify his three months off, presumably on full pay. Is there room for Sants-like sensitivity in the world that has not, so far as the laywoman can judge, significantly changed since Dick Fuld, of the since bankrupted Lehman Brothers, used to say: “When I find a short-seller, I want to tear his heart out and eat it before his eyes while he is still alive”?
When Mind reported on record levels of workplace stress and anxiety, a few years back, the City economist Ruth Lea briefly employed by Lehman Brothers said: “Stress is the new bad back.” Recent interviews, following the death of Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, have suggested continued City contempt for normal human needs, including sleep. “One time,” said a survivor “my superior told me that getting the flu had been ‘reckless’.”
How, then, to reassure Sants’s hard-working colleagues that he is not, like Osborne’s drowsing skivers, just pulling a protracted sickie at their expense?
Barclays could do worse than invite the head of compliance to attend an informal work capability assessment (WCA), at which a skilled Atos operative, wearing the all-important name-badge, could establish the impact of Sir Hector’s mental health condition on his entitlement to financial support. In his case, this is a £3m remuneration package; in the case of a benefits claimant, an employment and support allowance of, in some circumstances, £105 per week.
For instance, the Atos professional would ask the stressed and exhausted Sants about his ability to cope with change or working an alarm clock (a “no” to the latter scores a top 15 points). Plainly, looking at the questionnaire, some adjustments would have to be made so as to harmonise conventional expectations with behavioural norms in the banking industry. In the “appropriateness of behaviour with other people” section, for example, the DWP classifies as unfit for work any person with this prized banking talent: “Has, on a daily basis, uncontrollable episodes of aggressive or disinhibited behaviour that would be unreasonable in any workplace.”
Again, awarding the descriptor an incapacitating 15 points, the DWP shows zero respect for a quality that has made many of our top bankers the authorities they are today: “Reduced awareness of everyday hazards leads to a significant risk of damage to property or possessions such that they require supervision for the majority of the time to maintain safety.” Still, with a below-15 score in this and any other category, it is quite possible that a stressed banker might undergo, like any number of sick claimants, an Atos miracle and emerge restored after only 15 minutes with an Atos healer to a fully employable condition.
Admittedly, a court has recently ruled that existing WCAs are unfair to applicants with mental health problems, given the problems they can face in providing evidence and insights into their own conditions, a flaw that contributes not only to extensive human misery but to the overturning of around 40% of WCAs brought to appeal.
The DWP is appealing against that judgment, determined that patients with, say, schizophrenia, autism or personality disorders, and people who may be anxious, bipolar, suicidal or agoraphobic, as well as punishingly poor, should continue to be treated as capable of organising and sometimes paying for medical evidence about their condition. Not that a diagnosis, such as Sir Hector’s exhaustion and stress, would, outside Barclays, necessarily be considered incapacitating. It is the tasks that count. Hence reliable reports of mentally ill patients feeling suicidal when, being able to set an alarm clock as well as, say, self-harm, they fear scoring zero points in assessments and being stripped of benefits. At the same time, the care minister, Norman Lamb, is saying: “There is an institutional bias in the NHS against mental health and I am determined to end this.”
As for Barclays, shareholders now have to respect Sir Hector’s diagnosis, and the sick leave, or skiving to use the clinical term, suggested by his doctors. As much as his ill health is regrettable and one wishes him the swiftest of recoveries, the serene manner of its announcement could be the one useful thing his awful bank has ever done.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010