New VoicesMay 19 2023

Navigating a personality disorder diagnosis in an advice role

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Navigating a personality disorder diagnosis in an advice role
Quilter's advice journey lead Charlotte Hughes told FTAdviser that she believes it is important to "break down walls" and talk about mental health and neurodiversity in the workplace. (Carmen Reichman/FTAdviser)

The financial advice profession has gotten better at talking about mental health in the workplace, but a lot of firms are still on a learning journey when it comes to supporting neurodivergent staff.

The reality of this was something that came crashing into focus for Charlotte Hughes, Quilter’s advice journey lead, when she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder five years ago. 

Borderline personality disorder, or BPD, is the most commonly recognised personality disorder, affecting around one in 100 individuals. But it is widely misunderstood and people with the condition often suffer from stigmatisation. 

It was like reading my own life story. 

Because it is a long-term illness, it is often thought of as a form of neurodiversity - an umbrella phrase used to describe the different ways a person's brain processes information. 

The most common types of neurodiversity are autism, ADHD, dyscalculia, dyslexia and dyspraxia.

“When you hear about personality disorders, like borderline personality disorder, it’s in a negative fashion,” Hughes told FTAdviser.

“I think back to last year and the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial where [the media] were talking about how she had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and how people with BPD are ‘always’ manipulative in relationships, are ‘always’ looking to destroy relationships…always this, always that, always the other. 

“No person with BPD is the same as another person with BPD. That’s why it is a personality disorder, it’s completely unique,” Hughes said. 

What is BPD?

The NHS describes BPD as a disorder of mood and how a person interacts with others. 

Mental health charity Mind describes it as a condition that means a person has difficulties with how they think and feel about themselves and other people and can make it hard to cope day-to-day.

Experiences of BPD are different for different people. 

For Hughes, receiving her diagnosis five years ago was a revelation. 

“I’ve always known I’m a bit different. I remember when I was little I couldn’t handle crying, I’m terrified of ET because it made me cry and I didn’t understand my emotions. I just thought it was me, that I was a little bit different,” Hughes said. 

In her late twenties and early thirties, Hughes’ mental health started to become a major issue for her and she described it as being “very dark”. 

“It was just getting to a point where I was going to the GP and being told it was depression. Then finally, a GP said there’s something more going on so I was referred to the psychiatric unit of the hospital as an outpatient and saw a consult who after an hour told me what it was that was going on in my head,” she said. 

“And when I read about it, it was such a revelation. I read about what the symptoms are for BPD and what the effects are for a person and it was like reading my own life story. 

“Everything just fell into place and for me it was such a relief because you can’t fight an opponent until you know who they are and you have researched them.”

Hughes told FTAdviser that she chose to disclosure her diagnosis to her employer because "there might be times when I need support or I’m not healthy". (Carmen Reichman/FTAdviser)

At the time, Hughes, who is based in Wrexham in Wales, was working for Quilter. 

She had been working in financial services for a number of years at that point, having graduated from university with a degree in journalism. 

After finishing university, Hughes took a job in a bank and after getting a taste for wealth management found a love for the area. 

Now, at 38, Hughes is in her first leadership role as advice journey lead at Quilter where she works to ensure products and propositions are designed in a way that are understandable for consumers. 

Looking back on how she navigated her BPD diagnosis and her career, Hughes said: “We definitely went on a journey together in the workplace.”

Choosing to talk about it

Hughes made the decision to disclose her diagnosis to her employer and said although this is a personal decision for an individual to make, she felt the company had to know about it so they could fulfil their duty of care to her. 

“There might be times when I need support or I’m not healthy and I need to let my employer know that so they can look after me as a good employer.

"So we have definitely been on a journey together over the last five years, with Quilter learning how they can help me and with me learning how I can be the best employee I can be,” Hughes said.

Some of the support Hughes has been given in the workplace involves working compressed hours - longer hours during the week with one day off in the middle - and the ability to work full-time from home in Wales. 

No one should force you to come out until you are ready to come out

For Hughes, she has been happy with her decision to be so open about her illness. 

“The more people like me who are willing to talk and break down those walls around mental health conversations, and around neurodivergence, the better it will be for an industry as a whole,” she said. 

“If I hadn’t told my bosses that I had BPD and I was having a really dark day and couldn’t go into the office but wouldn’t say why, they might think I was just being a terrible employee. But because they know about my diagnosis they know that sometimes it is physically impossible for me to leave my room because in my head I’m terrified of the world outside.”

Hughes said being able to work from home has been a major help with this as it means on the days where she would find it difficult to go into an office she can make adjustments and does not have to ring in sick.

While Hughes is happy to be so open herself, she said employers should understand that this will not be the case for everyone.

When asked what advice she would give to someone who may be in the early days of a diagnosis relating to mental health or neurodivergence, Hughes said the number one thing to remember is that talking about it is your own decision. 

“Only that individual can decide when the time is right for them to - to borrow a phrase from another community - come out,” she said.

“No one should force you to come out until you are ready to come out, but what I would urge people to think about is if you feel like your employer needs to support you, then you need to share it with them, otherwise they can’t,” Hughes said.

It takes a certain level of bravery and courage at leadership tables

“I know people have been surprised at how understanding their employer, their line manager, their HR have been and the support that that’s been put in place, the signposting to other resources.

“You might have some sort of employee assistance programme that you don’t know about or a colleague might have used the services of your local NHS or a local private therapist or a local charity that if you don’t ask, you might not find out about.”

Hughes believes employers should be aware of the opportunities that exist by having neurodivergent individuals in leadership positions. (Carmen Reichman/FTAdviser)

“So I think open dialogue is huge, but don’t force somebody to come out before they are ready,” Hughes said. 

“You might suspect that somebody is struggling with their mental health and all you can do is ask ‘is everything okay? You can talk to me’. And if they’re not ready to talk, it does have to be waiting until they are ready. 

“The other thing to point out to principals of small firms and HRs is don’t be a therapist. 

“Don’t be a psychiatrist, don’t be a psychologist. You shouldn’t be expected to do that. I don’t expect my line managers to do that for me.

“Signposting is absolutely the right thing to do but nine times out of 10 if you are sitting across a desk from somebody, all they want to do is look at another human being with a heart that is beating and listening. That’s all I’m ever looking for,” Hughes said. 

Neurodiversity in leadership roles

Hughes also pointed out that as understanding of neurodiversity improves, employers should be aware of the opportunities that exist by having neurodivergent individuals in leadership positions. 

“I try and attend networking events about what the future of wealth management will look like because we are at a bit of a fork in the road,” Hughes told FTAdviser. 

“We’re talking about wealth in waiting, the next generation of customers who are going to be looking for support with financial products and how we can stay relevant to Gen Z who use TikTok and Instagram for their financial education. 

“Having people in leadership who look like them, talk like them, sound like them, have the same experiences of them, that will make us seem less exclusive. 

“But also when I’ve been at these events and talk to other leaders at companies in our sector they have come up to me afterwards and said ‘I had no idea about neurodivergence as a word and what it meant, but also what it could bring’. 

“It brings that squiggly way of thinking,” Hughes said. 

“I think it takes a certain level of bravery and courage at leadership tables to open the door and be open to hearing new ways of thinking.

“Try it, definitely be open minded to it,” Hughes said. 

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