We need to change the conversation about mental health

Suki Thompson
Suki Thompson

Prioritising mental well-being should be just as vital as tackling sexism and racism, says Oystercatchers' chief executive.

At this week’s Advertising Week Europe we came together to talk about stress – possibly the last taboo topic in our industry. While we’ve come a long way in tackling sexism and racism, we’re still burying our heads in the sand when it comes to mental health and mental wellness. In the UK, 70 million days are lost from work each year due to mental ill health.

Matt Atkinson, the group chief marketing officer of Saga; Nabs’ chief executive Diana Tickell; John Neal, performance coach and sports psychologist; Mark Rowland, director of fundraising and communication at the Mental Health Foundation; and Jonathan Harman of the Royal Mail joined me on stage and pulled no punches.

Nabs reported an upsurge of 67 per cent in people calling for emotional support in the last 12 months, with 65 per cent saying at some point in their career they felt unable to cope.

Mark Rowland shared his own story. His brother struggled for years with depression, a significant trigger being a sense of his own perceived failure: that he hadn’t achieved whatever his younger self had defined as a worthwhile life. It owned him and slowly suffocated him. Two years ago, his brother went out for a bike ride and never came back.

I can’t begin to imagine the devastation. 

I believe that we’re at a point in time when the cultural wave is crashing. I can openly talk about cancer, and no one doubts I can do my job, yet mention a mental health problem [and that can range from depression to autism] and employers are less likely to offer up employment. That has to stop.

Lessons I learnt

As leaders, do we create or remove stress? Are we doing enough to bring the challenges of stress to the table?  Matt Atkinson made a strong point when it comes to agency and client relationships. His view is that clients hold a great responsibility in setting the tone to ensure teams do great things together. "Work out whether you bring support and challenge into the room or just leave behind chaos," he urged. The tone of conversations, meetings and even emails need to carefully be considered.

John Neal, currently prepping British athletes for the Rio Olympics, uses a brilliant visual device to communicate individual well-being, smartly avoiding what most see as an awkward conversation. His team fill up small bottles of water to illustrate how much space [i.e. capacity] they each have left for training.

And our industry is helping too. Nabs’ Advice Line provides confidential and practical advice on how to handle stress, and master classes give people confidence to talk and understand that it’s perfectly normal to feel that you can’t cope all the time.

Some practical tips

Fitness: Without exception exercise came top of the list.

Know yourself: realising that she is a born organiser, Diana spends time tidying up each evening and prioritising work load to reduce that last minute feeling of stress.

Sleep well: Matt turns off the family Wi-Fi at 9pm, without fail.  Data shows that blue and white light late at night [that means TV too] guarantees restless sleep.

Pace yourself and support others: my PA will stop me from filling my diary – "too much Suki – time to breathe." 

Relationships: Mark told us that there is evidence that both home and work relationships can have a dramatic impact on our mental wellness, so don’t be afraid to change and speak up.

And finally, John’s advice: make love, and buy a mattress topper!

We’re at the beginning of a long journey and we need to get our business in shape. Employee health needs to be owned and supported by everyone. "Mental first aid" training should be included in leadership programs and executive coaching. Environments, schedules and cultural norms will need to reflect compassion and kindness. 

Our call of action is clear: achieve parity between physical and mental health. We are organising a roundtable bringing together people who want to help lead change in our industry, marketing and agency heads, and experts to develop an agenda. 

Please let me know if you want to take part at suki@theoystercatchers.com, or for support contact Nabs on 0800 707 6607 or FREEPOST NABS.

In the meantime, I’m off to buy a mattress topper and several small bottles of mineral water. 

Suki Thompson is the chief executive and co-founder of Oystercatchers

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