Mental health: focus on the cause

(and not just the symptoms)

Ahead of the next upcoming Mental Health Fishbowl, I wanted to share some thoughts on mental health and the workplace. I’m fully supportive of the Brave agenda and firmly believe that bringing the conversation more openly into the workplace can only be a good thing. The more open the discussion can be, the more everyone will benefit.

However, I’d like to talk not just about making a more supportive environment but understanding how the environment can create and exacerbate mental health concerns.

About 10 years ago, I leapt over the desk from client side to become a consultant. Before I left, my very well-meaning boss (who used to run a marketing services agency), gave me some advice:

“I used to tell my team, ‘you’re only as good as your last project’. But that’s not true. You’re only as good as your last meeting. Actually, that’s not true. You’re only as good as your last phone call. Actually, that’s not true. You’re only as good as your last email”

Well intentioned no doubt. But unfortunately for me, also about the worst advice she could have given me (and worth me apologising at this point to all those to whom I passed on this advice without realising what I was doing…).

Like many, I suffer from anxiety. I’ve not been good at recognising my self-worth and therefore seek out approval from others. If an Instragram like is a little buzz of endorphin induced approval, then winning a big pitch is my drug fix. A successful debrief, a new biz lead, a project win – these were what I craved. But the flipside is that a loss, a meeting that didn’t go well or a debrief that didn’t land, all led to crushing self-doubt.

If the work was good, then I was good. If the work was bad, then I was bad. I couldn’t separate the two. It wasn’t conscious, but I am sure that at some level, I walked into consultancy because I knew it could provide me with the fix that I craved. I could get external validation of my self worth every week, with new and varied clients, all telling me I was good.

We used to joke at the agency, that the recruitment spec was ‘under-confident over-achievers’. Everywhere I looked, there were spectacularly competent people, but who needed the constant reaffirmation of others to remind them of that fact.

Add to that, a culture that always hammered home “What could we have done better?” It was embedded that everything was in your power. Good or bad result; ultimately that was down to you.

My desire for approval has its roots many years before I walked through those doors…but in that environment, it found it’s perfect storm, fostering my own insecurities, whilst also exaggerating them, because the more I doubted myself, the harder I worked and the more obsessive I became for that fix of approval.

So, I have two pleas. Firstly, think about your culture. Think about the environment that is being fostered. Think about the subliminal messages that are being promoted. Think beyond just creating a supportive environment and face the elephant in the room: is the culture unwittingly promulgating mental health issues further?
Secondly, focus on the line between the value of the work and the value of the individual.

We may all rationally know that good work doesn’t mean the person is good and that bad work doesn’t mean the person is bad…but we are emotional humans, not rational robots.

Think about the moment. Think about the delivery. Take time to ensure that the distinction lands. My father’s advice to me was “Make the difficult decision, but implement it humanely”.

I’m not advocating a culture where no-one has difficult conversations, but I am advocating taking time to find the right way to deliver the message and ensure that the individual is ok.

Last week I lost a pitch, with an email sent at 21:45. My fault – I shouldn’t have been checking my emails (seems some of those approval craving habits are harder to kick than others). A year ago, that one email would have led to a sleepless night as I stressed over the decision: What had I got wrong? Why didn’t I get it right? Why me?

This time, with 9 months of CBT behind me, my daily dose of Citalopram and an hour’s walk, I was better and managed to get some sleep. But that feels like quite a lot, when the email could just have been sent the next day…

Creating a supportive environment is a crucial first step. But go beyond that, because if the culture is (at least partly) the cause, then just addressing the symptoms will go only so far.

This piece was by Simon Garnett, director at The Forge. Follow them @_TheForge