Media ‘a long way behind’ on mental health

Media ‘a long way behind’ on mental health
L-R: Rowlinson, Jennings-Creed and Dunne.

If you were calling in sick to work because of your mental health, what would you say to your boss?

Most people would still give an excuse and not openly talk about the real reasons why they could not come to work that day, and this needs to change, a panel at the Future of Media heard this month.

The panel responded to a manifesto presented earlier this year by Chris Dunne, head of marketing at Thinkbox, championing the importance of more mental health first aiders. Speaking at the Media Leaders Awards in April, Dunne stressed the importance of the industry “becoming more fluent in the language of mental health” and, as part of this, called on companies to commit to training 10% of the industry’s workforce to become a mental health first aider over the next year, and to double that figure for the leadership team to make sure mental health becomes “a boardroom issue”.

As part of the session dedicated to the Future 100 class of 2022 and 2023, Dunne sat down with Paul Rowlinson, a former GroupM executive who is now an independent consultant and trustee at charity Tommy’s, and Lorraine Jennings-Creed, director of wellbeing services & culture change at industry charity Nabs.

Dunne highlighted that according to a McKinsey report media (combined with telcos and communications in this instance) indexes “much higher” against other industries for mental health problems and issues.

On why this is the case, Rowlinson said media was “lagging behind” and other industries like banking, insurance, law, and management consultancy had “a much higher mark” for mental health, partly down to having a more structured approach and investment.

Rowlinson explained: “We are way behind, and I think there’s pressures from clients. We are a very young industry as well, so I think there’s a lot of challenges that have come about because of Covid, and hybrid working as well. But it’s also given us the licence to talk about this stuff. I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable talking about all of this four or five years ago. What I do know is that our industry as a whole has got an awful lot of work to do to support its people better.”

What is it about media and mental health?

Jennings-Creed, who has worked at Nabs for more than 15 years, echoed this as how she had seen “compounding pressures” in the advertising and media industry leading to “gaps” between policies and initiatives and action.

She said: “The main thing for us is we live in this volatile environment. Now the world is changing and has gone on its head since Covid and that isn’t changing.

“Work pressures are rising. There’s commercial tensions. So there’s these compounding pressures that are affecting people within our industry, and the expectations on what people want from organisations and from managers is also evolving, so these things are colliding.”

Rowlinson, who previously worked at WPP’s GroupM for more than 15 years as well as other agencies, shared his own personal experience with mental health struggles after retiring from media, which led him to seek medical help and reach out to Nabs.

“That gave me an insight into what it feels like to be depressed, anxious, and also, sadly, thinking about how you would take your own life,” he said. “I’ve lost three friends to suicide, three close friends all have worked in the business, and one of the things that’s common to all of them is that none of them spoke about it because they were terrified about work finding out and they didn’t want to be seen as damaged goods.”

He is trying to set up an organisation, ImNotOK.uk, to create a network of companions that have lived experiences of mental health problems that can help people in media.

Rowlinson added: “I’m finally getting to the point where I’m grateful it happened because I’ve learned things I would never have learned otherwise, and I can put myself in the shoes of my three friends and know how they felt. I can’t bring them back, but we can try and stop that happening to other people.”

What changes need to happen?

Jennings-Creed said that translating policies into realities so employees can access support is very important. The other “crucial area” for Nabs is around managers so that there is investment in their training so they do not become “overwhelmed” and can support their own self care and their team.

She also pointed to education around language and “base level understanding” to be able to understand different people’s interpretations through “an intersectional lens” to appreciate different cultural perspectives and lived experiences.

Jennings-Creed also recommended putting mental health on the agenda to respective audience members’ organisations and HR departments.

On giving Mental Health First Aid Training to more media industry employees, Rowlinson said the last person he would want to speak to about his mental health was someone he worked with.

“The concept is really good, but my view is that rather than trying to train more people to be Mental Health Allies, I think every single person in the business should be trained to have more awareness of their own mental health and the signs to look for,” he explained. “I certainly have never experienced anything like this before in my life and it took me months to realise that I was actually depressed. It was a slow, steady decline, but there were signals when I should have recognised those, and if I’d been trained, maybe I would have done, but it’s also recognising the signs in other people.”

Rowlinson added: “Whilst I think Mental Health Allies is a well-intentioned direction to take, I’d much rather see us make a proper investment into getting training across the board for every single person. We get trained in DDS or systems, so why not have a training about this? If people are first and they are our most valuable resource, why don’t we teach ourselves how to look after ourselves?”

On this topic, Dunne commented: “You might perhaps not likely to go and talk to a colleague, but I think one of the residual benefits [of Mental Health First Aid training] is simply being able to have more open conversations and understanding the definitions. It won’t necessarily been the person you talked to, but knowing that they’re there.”

Rowlinson also called on people to “genuinely check in” with people by asking “how do you feel” rather than “how are you” as it is more difficult to answer without actually saying how you are feeling. Another option is to ask “are you ok” as if there is a moment’s hesitation, then you know they are not.

Finally, he highlighted 15% of the workforce at any one time are going through some sort of mental health difficulty” and that for a “proper sea change to happen” the industry needed to look at mental health differently and invest properly to support its people.

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