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Journal 10 May 2019

Are we doing enough to protect the mental health of our staff?

From Sinead O’Connor’s battle with bipolar disorder to the tragic death of Dolores O’Riordan (2018) to Matt Haig’s breakdown, as documented in the Sunday Times Bestseller ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ (2015) we live in a world where there is an increasing awareness of mental health issues and the devastating impact they can have.

Next week is Mental Health Awareness Week so maybe it’s time we ask ourselves whether employers in the creative industry are doing enough to protect the mental wellbeing of our staff?

Poor mental health in the creative industry isn’t a new thing. It’s been an issue since the dawn of time. Sylvia Plath, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Edvard Munch, Georgia O’Keefe, and Ludwig Beethoven all struggled with mental health issues. I could go on – the list is endless. Of course, these perceptions could be distorted by the fact that creatives tend to be more in the public eye, their compositions, paintings and stories outlasting their life.

Poor mental health isn’t just limited to the rich and famous.

A 2017 survey carried out in Northern Ireland by Ulster University suggests that poor mental health isn’t simply the domain of the rich and famous, or even the uber-successful. The survey found that people working in the creative sector were three times more likely to suffer from a mental health issue than the general population. More worryingly, one-third of the 574 people surveyed, had been to their GP for help in the last year.

The ‘Creative Brain’

Group Chief Executive’ Peter McBride at Inspire (a charity that focuses on well being in Northern Ireland),said people who are creative are likely to be “more in touch with their feelings. That can mean they sometimes experience things differently or more deeply than others, that’s part of their craft. And in a way that is their gift to us.

There are many things that could contribute to poor mental health in the creative sector. These include high-pressure work environments, irregular work for contractors and the professional critique that a creative faces on a day to day basis.

The image of a tortured artist is firmly ingrained in our culture after a string of creative maestros suffered considerable mental anguish – most famously Vincent Van Gogh, who cut off his left ear. A recent study by Cambridge University Press on artistic creativity published last year found that people who were relatively creative compared to the general population were more likely to develop mental health problems such as bipolar disorder and severe depression – and that people who were very creative faced an even higher risk. “This in itself shows how individuals with immense artistic creativity could be more susceptible (twice over) in developing various mental health disorders” according to lead researcher James MacCabe, of King’s College London.

Whichever it is, one thing is for sure – employers need to be aware of the mental health of all of their employees and do their best to protect mental wellbeing.

But what can employers do to improve the mental health of employees?

Here are six ways the creative industry could improve mental health for those working within it:

  1. Providing a kinder, more supportive and less stressful working environment,
  2. Better work-life balance and/or improved pay and conditions.
  3. Removing the stigma surrounding mental health.
  4. Offering emotional support and access to mental health services.
  5. Greater education and awareness of the significance of drugs and alcohol in mental health.
  6. Greater support with stressful life events such as divorce, tax return submission and more.
  7. Educating at an early age about coping mechanisms, protective strategies and resources available, maybe even as early as during school.
  8. And all this would rely on greater recognition of the sector being a high-risk environment and funding being made available to support these initiatives.

Modern thinking suggests that, as a general rule, the key to good mental wellbeing is balance. Sleep, rest and relaxation time, physical activity and good diet are all key components to achieving this balance. If employers do what they can to support employees in reaching an equilibrium, we’re a good way towards improving the mental health of our creative industry already.

Some employers offer lunchtime sports classes such as yoga or bootcamps, maybe an onsite table tennis table for downtime, or to diffuse potentially contentious discussions. Some may ensure access to healthy and wholesome food options, rather than just crisps and chocolate bars guaranteed to invoke a post-lunch sugar rush.

Other employers are taking up Workplace Wellbeing schemes that both educate management and offer practical support in terms of helplines, mindfulness training, resilience, the science of sleep and financial wellness. Some of these even offer onsite massage and physiotherapy services.

Mind UK suggests that the biggest challenge we, as a nation have, is making the mental health of employees an organisational priority destigmatising the shame surrounding mental health. With increasing pressure to deliver better and faster than competitors, it’s hard for mental wellbeing – something that can’t be seen – to get our attention it deserves.

However, it comes down to this: unless we as employers become more aware of mental health in the workplace, the number of sick days will increase, staff turnover will increase and productivity will plummet. With a lack of consistent staff, it’s only a matter of time before your clients and customers start to suffer.

Whether improving the mental health of employees in the creative industry can be as simple as encouraging a healthy work/life balance or not, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

So, this Mental Health Awareness Week, or indeed, for the whole year that follows, take control of the situation. Start seeing poor mental health as the threat to businesses that it really is, and together, let’s do something positive to change the narrative.

If you have any questions then please email me Vicky at Vicky.Fellows@ic-resources.com

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