Monday 22 April 2024

What is your mental health strategy?

by Andy Wright, Creator, Never Not Creative and Co-Chair, Mentally-Healthy



For the last six years we’ve been conducting research into the mental wellbeing of the creative, media and marketing industries. Every wave of research we get deeper into understanding what creates healthier and happier teams, agencies and businesses – and of course – what doesn’t.

There’s plenty of evidence in the research that shows awareness, education and understanding has improved. The same can likely be said of society in general, but we’d like to think we’ve helped nudge the improvements in our industry along in the right direction.

Stigma: One of our key measures of stigma across the research has been the statement “I disagree that people in my industry would be treated poorly if they were to disclose they had been diagnosed with a mental illness.” This improved from 32% in 2018 to 49% in 2022.

Help: Nearly half of respondents went to their GP to discuss their mental health in the preceding 12 months. We were of course coming out of covid (and this was a survey about mental health), but this was way ahead of the national average at the time of 13%.

Understanding: 69% of respondents believed they were good at spotting their own mental health problems, vs 59% in the 2020 wave.

These are promising signs. Coupled with perceptions of employers taking mental health more seriously, we continue pushing in the right direction.

The question over our actual quality of mental wellbeing at work remains, though. I often refer to the challenges we face in this space when giving someone with pneumonia a tissue (probably even a rather nice, triple-ply, alo-vera-coated one). We’re improving at mopping it up, but are we getting better at preventing it in the first place?

For the last two waves now, I’ve been presenting the killer slide. What do people want to see at work that can improve their mental wellbeing?

At the bottom of the list are the most common elements of ‘most’ workplaces mental health strategies. Healthier food and snacks on the communal bench, lunchtime yoga/meditation, mental health first aid training, an EAP and team building activities. I’m also careful to say that there is nothing wrong with these things. I re-upped on my mental health first aid accreditation, and it’s invaluable. But none of them address the cause – the work.

The way we work, our work relationships, our commercial relationships, our job design and demands, and our inability (and ability) to take a more structured approach to the reactive dynamics of our industry.

If you want a strategy to make a dent in improving the mental well-being of your people, this is where you can start. Indeed, respondents have placed at the top of the list in previous waves – more empathetic leadership, clear objectives, flexible working, and appropriate structure and resources at the top of their list. Is it weird that the words mental or health don’t appear anywhere near those items?

Not really, actually. And the academic research backs it up. You can read more about that in this fantastic paper by Professors Sharon Parker and Caroline Knight on the SMART model of work design, which also references numerous other studies focused on how work design can help us avoid burnout and improve work output.

In my experience in design and advertising agencies, I never received professional training in leadership. I was never taught how to manage clients or workflow – for those who worked with or for me at the time, you’ll probably hear, “Yeah, it showed.” So much of the training in our industry is ‘on the job’. This inevitably means that this perpetual cycle of wave after wave of graduates, managers and leaders are learning all the same lessons that got us here in the first place. Yes, we can point to awards and achievements and the ‘work and creativity’ is great – but at what cost?

I know I’m making large, sweeping generalisations, but based on my own experience and speaking to many others, I don’t think they’re a million miles off the mark.

So, if you want to start developing a mental health strategy for your agency and our industry, I’d ask that you contribute to our latest wave of mental health research. It’s diving deeper than ever before and focusing even more on work design, psycho-social hazards, and employer accountability.

Share with your teams (before May 3, when the survey closes) and then keep an eye out for the results in June. Wherever possible, we’re happy to arrange specific and tailored presentations/conversations.

Let’s see if we can go from mopping up and coping to thriving and helping our people be the best they can possibly be. I think it will be worth it.

If you need help, personally along the way we’ve collected helplines here.

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