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Greg Burns, a highflying stockbroker, sat down in front of his GP, who looked up at him. “What’s the matter with you?,” the doctor asked. “You look like you are going to die. It is the saddest I have ever seen anyone in my life.”
Burns started to weep. It happened to him a lot at the time. It was 2004 and he was at the doctors at the behest of his wife’s counsel for him to get help.
Burns had been in the high-pressured, high-profile, competitive world of stockbroking for 35 years. This was where he had ended up: wealthy, successful, powerful … and crying uncontrollably.
Greg Burns is his real name. Many people in business today will know Burns from his role in some of the most high-profile stockbroking firms over the past three decades. Burns was named Stockbroker of the Year by business magazine, BRW, three years in a row in ‘88, ’89 and ‘90.
Burns is willing to reveal his identity in this story – the remarkable tale of his own emotional breakdown, anxiety, depression and recovery – because he wants to end the stigma and the shame associated with the issues he faced. He wants to end the competitive culture that undermines any chance of honesty in the workplace, and for executives to reach out for help before they reach rock bottom. In short, he wants to prevent mental health issues. “I never want anyone to suffer what I went through,” he tells LeadingCompany.
When Burns left school at 17 with top marks, his father advised him that only “homosexuals and losers” went to university, so instead to join the public service.
While at the State Electricity Commission, Burns daydreamed about the school economics excursion he had taken the trading room of the Australian Stock Exchange (now the Australian Securities Exchange).
“All these guys were all yelling and screaming, having fun and getting paid for it,” he says. He wrote to every stockbroking firm in Melbourne and six months later took a job as a messenger.
Burns began his fast track to the top. By 1975 was working the trading room floor. After 12 months, he was poached by Potter Partners, then to work with Rene Rivkin, a flamboyant stockbroker who worked in Sydney (and was much later found guilty of insider trading).
He moved back to Melbourne and then joined a new stockbroking firm, McIntosh Griffin Hamson & Co, on January 27, 1980. “McIntosh was determined to make an assault on the market dominance of the big stockbrokers in corporate and institutional broking,” he says.
By 1982, Burns was a partner, and the long hours started. “I hated weekends because I wasn’t allowed to work,” he says. “I had no other interests.”
Burns married in 1980, but his obsession with work drove him to maintain enormous hours. “For 12 years I started at 6am and left between 6.30 and 7pm each night,” he says. “Then dinner, and on the phone to the London office.
“A lot of us didn’t like each other, but everyone had their role,” he says. His fellow partner had outside interests – farming, tennis. “I was the young gun, best at what I did.”
McIntosh grew from start-up to 250 staff in five years, achieving a 75% dominance of the corporate deals, infuriating the major brokers that were once unchallenged. It was valued at $750 million in its heyday.
By the time of the stockmarket crash in October 1987, Burns was already showing signs of burnout. By this stage, his weekends were spent staring at the walls, trying to recover enough energy to tackle another 80-hour week.
His wife took a stand. “She said if you are going be like this then I’d like to buy a country place where at least I can get on with things I want to do,” Burns recalls.
Burns began to slide into a malaise in 1989 as the founding partners retired. “It started to unravel. I became disenchanted. Work became a chore.”
Burns' story is continued over the page. Do you need help? In Australia, call 13 11 14 for Lifeline Australia.
After announcing he was going to quit, Burns took three months off, came back for six months, left for a two-year ‘sabbatical’, and then went back to work.
Never, in all this time, did Burns consult a doctor about his stressful life, and neither did any doctor ask him about his mental health.
Never did he admit any weakness to his colleagues. He knew what would happen if he did. “It was a blokey industry where you didn’t admit to anything,” he says. “At the slightest sign of weakness, people would shaft you, saying behind your back, ‘Oh, Burnsie’s got problems’. It is the most testosterone-driven industry there is.”
Amazingly, it was 1997 before Burns suffered his first episode of paralysing anxiety. “I went off the rails. I was having anxiety attacks. I couldn’t sit down. I just couldn’t think straight. My wife and I broke up for six months and it was all my fault. While I was alone, I went to hospital thinking I had had a heart attack. It was a panic attack.”
Astonishingly, the hospital did not follow up his condition: no referral to a psychiatrist or psychologist, no medication – nothing.
Burns’ wife counselled him to see a doctor about his mental state, but he thought she simply didn’t understand. He hated the company he was working for at the time – which he declines to name – for its empty, conflict-ridden corporate culture.
Burns’ anxiety lasted nine months before he found what he thought was a solution – a new job. He held himself together for several more years, then announced his retirement.
Burns quit without consulting his wife, and was astonished to find she didn’t want to spend all day every day with him (the couple do not have children). “Over the past 35 years, she has created her own life. Her parents were very ill. I had no idea how much time she was spending with them. She didn’t want me there – I was disrupting her life.”
Burns had talked so bitterly about his life in stockbroking before he left that his colleagues abandoned him en masse once he was out the door.
This time, Burns was not anxious, but depressed. When he wasn’t not actually crying, he was close to tears, lonely, and unclear about what to do. This time, when his wife told him to go a doctor, he followed her advice.
His GP referred him to psychologist Simon Kinsella, whose practice already had a brisk trade in burned-out executives. In weekly sessions, Burns began talking – and frequently crying – as he began to realise “what I had put my wife through”.
Over the course of the next year, Burns got back on his feet. “It was very confronting and very uncomfortable, but it made me understand myself, and why I was so obsessive.”
In a sobering moment of fearless honesty, Burns tells LeadingCompany: “If it was not for that, I probably would have taken my life.”
Burns has taken up golf and painting, but he also has another passion: a new company formed with Kinsella recently – long after his treatment finished – to help executives identify if they are risking depression. The Institute of Performance and Wellbeing provides executives with a “check up from the neck up” to prevent them getting to the point where they have to step down.
“What people don’t understand is that once you reach the point of no return, you don't get rid of it; you have to manage it,” says Burns. “You have to identify the trigger points.”
Executives, especially men, are very good at covering stress, anxiety and depression in their workplaces, he says. “But when you walk out the office door, the people who cop it are your family.”
Need help? In Australia, call 13 11 14 for Lifeline Australia.