Suki Thompson, Oystercatchers: Marketers, we need to talk about stress

Suki Thompson article

Fifty years of work could be lost to mental illness by 2030 – that’s about 12 billion working days – according to a recent World Health Organisation report. The survey also found that a failure to treat symptoms of depression and anxiety is costing the global economy £651bn a year in lost productivity.

Bringing this closer to home, in the UK the estimated costs of mental health problems to employers is £26bn. Middle-aged male suicide has risen 40% since 2008 and one in four of us this year will experience some form of mental health problem. Perhaps most shockingly, three-quarters of people confronting the illness are not receiving any kind of treatment.

Yet, I believe that we are at the tipping point of changing the conversation – as this formerly taboo topic emerges from the shadows. The Duchess of Cambridge is bringing the issue to light not only in national and global media, but in glossy women’s magazines and more. The Government has unveiled a £1bn programme for mental health. This year’s International Women’s Forum devoted a session to the subject.

Whether or not you admire the people or organisations behind the drive – the truth is they are helping mental health make headlines and become part of mainstream conversation.

How well is marketing doing as an industry?

Worryingly, a recent NABS survey reports that it has seen a 67% increase from people seeking emotional help. Meanwhile, 65% said at some point in their career they have been unable to cope.

The main causes include workload, lack of resources [do more with less], lack of management support or understanding and presenteeism – that archaic notion of ‘doing facetime’.

There is increased understanding of the impact of these problems – mentoring and coaching is being put in place and NAB’s ‘Resilience’ programme is second to none. But my question is this: how do we raise the bar to secure the wellbeing of our people and ensure our industry thrives?

In the marketing world, family, outside interests or just ‘me time’ are still frowned upon. People are working 24/7, pitches often see teams pulling all-nighters and global business means flying hours each week, usually across time zones. Studies show that we are now 70% on and 30% off work. Exactly the antithesis of what experts say is needed for well-being.

The specific causes of mental illness are still not fully understood – biology, psychology and the environment all play their part. Chemical imbalances, trauma, genetics, infection, pre-natal complications and substance abuse are the ones we know about now.

I can’t hope to compete with the science, but I can seek to understand and take action so that my team is given the right support. And ensure that my clients are doing likewise for their own teams.

I envisage a time when just as we encourage family, friends and colleagues to visit the gym to keep their body fit, so will we support them in going to the gym for the mind. Mediation and enlightenment training to keep the mind in shape will be seen as normal activities. I see stress becoming part of the regular employee evaluation. I see mental health factors becoming part of the annual report – just as CSR and purpose have become.

On Thursday, I am proud to be chairing a discussion at Advertising Week Europe 2016 to challenge the stigma of mental health in our industry, to bring the conversation into the open, and take realistic steps for change.

The panel brings together true experts in the field: Matt Atkinson, Saga’s group CMO; Diana Tickell, CEO of NABS; John Neal, sports psychologist; and Mark Rowland, director of fundraising & communications at the Mental Health Foundation. Jonathan Harman of The Royal Mail, a company that has created programmes to support mental wellbeing at work, is hosting the event.

Our call of action will be clear: achieve parity between physical and mental health in our business.

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