28 Mar 2019

Mentally Healthy Work

Last year, we conducted the first ever major-scale study into the mental health of the media, marketing and creative industry in partnership with Everymind and Never Not Creative. It’s clear as an industry, we have a problem.

The Mentally Healthy survey showed over half of our industry are showing symptoms of depression and anxiety, with one in five showing severe or extremely severe signs of depression, and a quarter - that’s one in four, showing severe or extremely severe signs of anxiety.

The survey also uncovered a stigma issue – we are accepting of others having mental ill-health - 89% said they are happy to work with someone who has been diagnosed with depression. However when it comes to sharing our own stories, less than a third (29%) would tell someone in their workplace if they were diagnosed with depression. That is an enormous, and worrying, chasm.

Another key finding was that we are turning to our workplaces for help. Of the respondents, 25% preferred to seek help from professionals and 26% from their workplace, so it’s important for organisations to be prepared.

The numbers proved what we had heard anecdotally in numerous conversations – the many stories of burnout, high levels of stress, depression and sadly, suicide. In our team of eight, we knew of four people from our industry who took their own lives last year. With suicide being the biggest killer of young Australians aged 15 – 44*, the real number in our industry is likely to be much higher than that.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If we want to continue to be an industry that people aspire to work, and thrive, in, we need to get a grip on these challenges.

One important part is education, which is why we recently hosted a series of breakfast events around Mentally Healthy Work. These events were designed to help us build workplaces that support good mental health, create a stigma-free culture and provide us with some practical tools and tips on how to support our colleagues and spot the warning signs.

We also heard some powerful, personal, emotional and brave stories from some very successful industry figures including Cat Bowe and Natalie Parton from Facebook and former Microsoft ad exec Mitch Wallis from Heart On My Sleeve, highlighting the importance of sharing your story to help smash the stigma on mental health.

Now I’m not a mental health professional, but luckily we work with many who are experts in the field. So here are some of the key takeaways from our expert guest speakers:

1. Mental health continuum

Just like physical health, we all have mental health. Sometimes we’re well, sometimes we are injured and sometimes we are unwell. Just like physical health, mental health is not static but moves on a continuum. There are times in our life and circumstances that may move us either way on the continuum. At the workplace, our role usually focuses on providing emotional support for those who are healthy or reacting, or in some cases, directing those who are unwell or injured to the professional services for help.

2. Understand your role

Unless you are a trained counsellor or psychologist, it can seem intimidating and overwhelming to even start the conversation around mental health, not to mention being able to help someone who is unwell through more serious issues. But that’s just the thing - we are not trained mental health professionals and no-one is expecting us to be one either. But we do have a responsibility as colleagues, leaders and fellow human beings, to be aware of the warning signs and provide emotional support for those who need it.

We never know the full background of our staff and we may have people in our team with pre-existing mental health concerns. Mitch Wallis, Founder and CEO of the Heart on My Sleeve Movement summed it up perfectly by saying: “Companies don’t need to fix the problem, but they do have the responsibility to not make it worse”. Not only is it the right thing to do but it’s also the law. According to Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) legislation, organisations have a responsibility to ensure that the working environment does not harm mental health or worsen an existing condition. Find out more about the legislation around mental health at work here.

3. Know the warning signs and reach out

The most common warning signs are around change – change in normal behaviour, change in physical appearance, change in performance, change in mood. The signs can vary from person to person but generally if you feel in your gut that something isn’t right, reach out. Whilst smaller changes in behaviour can suggest that someone is ‘reacting’ or ‘injured’ in the mental health continuum, the signs for suicidal thoughts can be slightly different including behaviours like giving things away, social isolation and a very negative view of themselves. Beyond Blue has a great resource on spotting the warning signs of suicide.

4. Have real conversations

Many people are afraid of reaching out and having honest conversations for the fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’ or ‘putting thoughts in their head’. Don’t be. Firstly, our role is not to give advice or say the right thing but to provide emotional support, and listen. In terms of not asking someone about whether they are considering suicide for the fear of ‘putting thoughts in their head’, a recent study by Headspace found out that there is no evidence that talking about suicidal thoughts or behaviour is harmful. The findings suggest acknowledging and talking about suicide may in fact reduce, rather than increase suicidal ideation, and may lead to improvements in mental health. And as Josh Wiseman from batyr wisely put it: “Wouldn’t you rather ask and be wrong, than to not ask and be right?”

5. Listen

As mentioned in terms of our role – as a colleague or a friend, our role is to provide emotional support, not to fix the problem. The best way to do this is by active listening. Rather than worrying about what to say next or how you are going to fix the problem, just be present, listen without judgement, empathise and ask questions when appropriate. It is also helpful to try to recommend action (for example talking to a friend/professional) and checking-in on them again soon to see how they are doing. R U OK has excellent resources and guides for having mental health conversations at work. One exception however is that if you find yourself in a conversation with someone who is considering suicide, you will need to ensure their safety and get them help immediately, this could be by personally taking them to see a professional or by putting Lifeline (13 11 14) on speaker on your phone. If you are concerned someone is having suicidal thoughts, check out the useful Conversations Matter resource by Everymind on how to have a conversation about suicide.

6. Language matters

We’ve all done it – called someone who likes their desk tidy ‘a bit OCD’ or someone acting strangely a ‘psycho’ or ‘mental’. Whilst it can be meant completely harmlessly, these words can contribute to a negative association with mental health and create a culture of stigma. Our charity partners batyr are on a mission to smash the stigma around mental health and to talk about mental health in a more positive light – and they practice what they preach. For example, they no longer have ‘sickness leave’ but instead call this ‘wellbeing leave’, that can also be taken preventatively. Instead of a swear jar, they have a ‘stigma jar’ to call out stigmatised language. It might seem small but subtle changes can make a difference – saying someone ‘committed suicide’ links it to the only other thing we commit – crime. A safer option would be to talk about ‘taking their own life’.

Being in the communications business, our industry holds great power in changing the language and conversation around mental health and it’s important we do it safely. Mindframe offers excellent guidelines for the media industry on how to talk about mental health and suicide.

7. Lead by example

By making your own mental health a priority and being honest when things are not okay, you will send a clear message to your staff that it’s okay not to be okay and to look after yourself. The old saying is true – you can’t pour from an empty cup – so make sure you are prioritising your own mental health to be in a position to really help others. Sharing your own story can be such a powerful way to smash the stigma and help others to feel confident to open up.

8. Save this number

Lastly - a great tip from batyr – save the Lifeline number (13 11 14) on your phone. Hopefully you will never need it yourself but you never know when you find yourself in a situation when someone else does and you’ll be glad you have it.

If you are interested in making your work place more mentally healthy, check out these great workshops and training sessions that our expert speakers offer:

If you or someone you know is struggling, or you’ve been affected by any of the topics mentioned here please contact:

Lifeline: 13 11 14

beyondblue: 1300 22 4636

*ABS 2017

By: Nina Nyman, CMO, UnLtd

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