And still the Chancellor borrows

We are happy to believe in markets in the good times. When times are bad, we run to the state, says

We’re all Keynesians now: bank nationalisation; huge public borrowing; Alistair Darling boasts of spending our way out of the coming recession. Even Boris Johnson has backed 1930s-style public works to boost the economy.

Herein lies madness.

It's all very well spending money you have. At the heart of Keynes's ideas is the notion that when times are good, the government builds up a surplus. This can then be spent in bad times to stimulate the economy. It's not that different from the story about Joseph and his dream of the seven fat cows and the seven lean ones. The seven fat years were followed by seven lean ones. The idea is that you save in the fat years to spend in the lean ones. Some of us learned this at Sunday school.

In the first half of this year we reached the highest level of public borrowing since 1946 (when we at least had the excuse of the aftermath of war). And the Chancellor wants to make the deficit even larger, by borrowing.

We are bust, but the Chancellor wants to spend more money. Capital projects, building roads, bridges and tunnels, are a typically Keynesian prescription. The Japanese tried such projects in the 1990s. They ended up with 15 years of no growth and a national debt 120 per cent of GDP. Today, as a nation, we have no money and lots of debt. Yet the Prime Minister is proposing to spend more. We haven't seen this kind of silliness in 30 years.

The only way out is to bring back some fiscal responsibility. We will need restraint. Prudence needs to be brought back urgently. We should not make a bad problem worse by embarking on Millennium Dome-style projects. These will make us more indebted, without giving the economy the stimulus it needs.

What is worse is that we have turned our back on markets. We panicked at the first ebb of trouble. Take the bank bailouts. The banks were not all basket cases. Lehman Brothers was the exception, not the rule.

It was a bank known for aggression, not brains. Its chief executive, Richard Fuld, was called the "gorilla of greed". Lloyds and Barclays were not comparable. There was a panic; the market was not allowed to find a level for the bank shares. Fund managers were about to invest again in the banks when Paulson and Bernanke stepped in.

Paulson's plan was the wrong one. Our government correctly identified the problem: the banks needed more capital to protect them from the panic sellers. But where would this capital come from? There were few dissenting voices when Brown said it would be the state. Barclays, to its credit, turned its back on the Brown plan. John Varley, the chairman, felt he could get private investors to support his bank. It will be difficult; but, as I write, only Barclays shares have rallied. At the end of the week of Brown's interventions, Barclays was up 7 per cent from the start of the week, RBS down nearly 20 per cent, Lloyds down 16 per cent. HBOS shares lost 35 per cent of their value.

There is a sound reason for not putting taxpayers' money in banks. It isn't guaranteed that the price of the shares will go up. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the value of the shares goes down 50 per cent. The government would then have lost more than £18bn of its investment. Would a responsible government expose the taxpayer to that kind of risk? No.

Despite being slow off the mark, the Americans are now thinking more clearly. Their government is to get 5 per cent on its preference shares, rising eventually to 9 per cent. The UK government is getting 12 per cent on its shares. Any banker will tell you that it is much harder to pay dividends to shareholders if you have a 12 per cent coupon to pay to lenders first. The US deal is more attractive to potential investors.

Barclays, meanwhile, has put its faith in those investors. It wants to get new equity capital from institutions in the Gulf states, China and Japan. There is plenty of money in these countries. Some of these investors have already lost a lot of money buying bank shares this year, yet deals are still being done. There is still an appetite for western bank assets.

Mitsubishi Bank of Japan bought 20 per cent of Morgan Stanley for US$9bn this September, before the fabled Brown plan. China has US$1.5trn of reserves. If you think a deal can't be done, ask the Barclays shareholders. Then speak to HBOS shareholders. Why would you buy HBOS when you know the bank will have to pay Gordon 12 per cent before you get a penny in dividends?

There has been little real debate about the nature of the bailout. The Keynesian mantra of public works relies on having a surplus to spend. Keynes was not the profligate borrower his admirers have portrayed.

We are happy to believe in markets in the good times. When times are bad, we run to the state. Like spoilt rich kids, we run to Daddy when times are hard, having protested our independence when things were going well.

Milton Friedman died two years ago. He would have been dismayed by all of this. He believed in markets.

Keynes died in 1946, as public borrowing reached new heights. He said the ideas of economists and philosophers were more powerful than people think: "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

In this case it has just been the wrong "defunct economist", but our current political masters are not even competent Keynesians. They learned the wrong lessons, badly.

Kwasi Kwarteng is a financial analyst and writer and a former chairman of the Bow Group

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism