Mental health is a rising problem in adland. Nabs, the support organisation for advertising and media, has been contacted by a striking amount of people looking for support in this area since the start of the pandemic last year: 51% of emotional support calls to the Nabs Advice Line are specifically from industry colleagues looking for help with their mental health.
Low mood, drops in confidence and the effects of work pressures also top the list of reasons for emotional support calls to Nabs. All of these factors can have a huge negative impact on someone’s ability to perform at work and enjoy their lives at the best of times. As we continue to trawl through lockdown, these effects can be magnified further and could lead to burnout.
However, the solution to such a big problem can start small.
Time to Talk Day, which falls on 4 February this year, encourages everyone to be more open about their mental health. This year’s theme is “the power of small” and highlights how a small conversation about mental health has the power to make a big difference.
Seems too twee to work? Not according to Chris Hayward, the adland legend once named Campaign’s top media buyer in the UK. Chris suffered a mental health crisis in 2014 following a freak accident, where he temporarily lost the use of his legs. For someone used to running, skiing and enjoying a lively social life, the debilitating effects of his accident were particularly crushing.
Chris says: “Within the course of a few days, I went from being supremely confident with complete self-belief to somebody consumed by self-doubt and negativity who was becoming increasingly isolated.”
After months of physio and rehabilitation, Chris eventually returned to work, but the mental and emotional effects of his accident stayed with him and intensified. Negativity consumed him and he became more withdrawn and more isolated. There seemed to be no escape. Chris pushed through and worked until he snapped. After contemplating suicide, he escaped to Liverpool, where he had grown up and felt safe. “I spent about seven hours in two different bars, staring at a pint, doing nothing. I was in a mental fog for hours,” he recalls.
Talking, according to Chris, is what saved him. Once he was able to open up and share what was going on, he could start his long and ongoing process of healing and recovery. “I was fortunate to have specialised treatment to help me speak openly about my experience. I’m also lucky to have a group of friends, as well as my family, who watch out for me. They were curious and empathetic, and I found discussing my experience with them to be very cathartic.”
Chris is now a passionate advocate for mental health support in our industry, speaking out as an influential voice about the importance of looking after your own mental health as well as supporting that of your colleagues. He says: ”From the start, I resolved to talk honestly about my experience. When people ask me about my mental health, I'm aware that people are often really asking about themselves and comparing their experience with mine.
“That small conversation doesn’t have to be deep. Ask if someone’s OK, how they’re spending their day, what they’re reading. You need hooks that encourage conversation and get that person to engage.”
Annabel McCaffrey is head of support at Nabs. Annabel and her team manage thousands of calls to the Advice Line each year. For many, it’s often the first time they’ve shared their mental health challenges with someone else – even close family may not know how they’ve been struggling.
Annabel says: “We hear from so many people who’ve been bottling up their problems and attempting to push on through without help. That first call may take a lot of courage, but it’s the most important one, where they can open up a conversation that will ultimately lead to them getting the help they need.”
Annabel also points to the importance of looking out for your colleagues in order to support those who may be facing difficulties. “It can feel awkward to start a conversation with a colleague or contact if you notice that they don’t quite seem themselves. But in fact, doing this can be transformative.
“I recently noticed on a group Zoom meeting a colleague who is usually very engaged was looking blank, which worried me. I called them after the meeting to ask how they were doing. They were really touched that I’d noticed and we ended up chatting about how we were both feeling. We really connected with each other and now continue to check in with each other regularly.”
Chris reflects that his journey to recovery may have been quicker had someone done the same with him early on in his mental health journey, but also accepts that a sense of bravado and “fear of being found out” may have made it difficult for people to spot just how much trouble he was in. “A large part of my problem was that I didn’t recognise how negative my thoughts were and how isolated I had become. It didn’t occur to me at any stage to talk about my mental health until that day I went to Liverpool.
“I’ve seen how vital it is to talk to someone as soon as you can to get the help that’s out there, like the Nabs Advice Line. These days, I talk a lot about my mental health and the mental health of others. My life is much better for it.”
Tips for talking to your colleagues about mental health, from Chris and Nabs’ support advisors.
It’s incumbent upon our industry’s leaders to recognise that they have a responsibility to their people that stretches beyond work. It's part of their moral and professional duty to look out for their teams’ mental wellbeing. Try to set an example and encourage line managers and colleagues to talk about things other than work. Too often in advertising we become so absorbed with getting work out to clients that we lose sight of the fact that our colleagues are individuals who exist beyond the next presentation. If you’re a CEO, why not choose a handful of staff regularly and personally call or message them, asking questions such as how are you doing, do you have time to exercise – non-work stuff – and do it with sincerity.
If you’re umm-ing and ahh-ing about whether to send a message, just go for it. I recently sent a quick message to ask if someone was OK and fancied a chat. I got as much out of talking as I hoped the other person did.
Often when someone is struggling with basic needs, such as health, childcare or finances, there can be a strong and understandable focus on the practicalities of life. In these instances, asking the person about the impact on them can encourage them to pause for a moment and reflect on their own wellbeing and needs. Our clients often call the Advice Line seeking practical guidance about challenges they’re facing. After we've answered their most pressing questions, we may ask them how they are. Often this is met with a pause, and sometimes tears, as it may be the first time they have been asked this question or given consideration to their feelings. Having the opportunity to reflect on this can be a welcome gift and may generate ideas about any support they need. In turn, this can build their resilience in the face of the pressure they're experiencing.
In this virtual world, carving out a specific time to catch up can be really valuable as it can sometimes be hard to find the space alongside other commitments. Before we know it, weeks might have passed. Catching up over the phone or via video call, rather than just using messenger apps or email, could be just as valuable too, because it can be hard to gauge how someone is really feeling in writing and some of us might not want to put it in writing anyway. Knowing you've got a full half an hour to focus purely on the conversation at hand, without distractions, can really encourage someone to think and share openly about what is going on for them.
If you’re sensing that someone is struggling, suggest taking a breather from work and having a chat on the phone while going out for a walk. Given the way in which we're all currently living, they might feel unable to talk freely while being indoors with family or flatmates, or perhaps they’ve been on their own during lockdown. Walking outdoors can allow us to have a bit more headspace and it can enable us to share how we are feeling more openly.
If you need help, call the Nabs Advice Line on 0800 707 6607 between 9am-5.30pm (weekdays) or email firstname.lastname@example.org for tailored advice and guidance, whatever your level or experience.