The news that designer Kate Spade has taken her own life, seemingly after a long and private battle with mental ill health, once again re-enforces the fact that mental health problems can affect us all. It’s exceptionally sad to hear reports that Kate Spade felt unable to seek help or discuss her mental health because she feared this might damage the brand she created.
Carrying a business or being the face of your own brand can be exceptionally hard. It can also be accompanied by intense fear of failure which can make it very hard to show any kind of weakness. This is true, whether you are a start-up, a small business owner or the founder of a billion-dollar company.
We often say ‘just talk’ – but entrepreneurs and business owners can put themselves under huge pressure and may find themselves feeling like a lightning rod for the success and failure of a company. We also know that there is a link between creativity and distress. Quite simply, we need to find a way to let everyone get the help they require – whether they lead a business or are a junior employee worried that disclosing a problem may lead to their dismissal.
The fact remains that most people who experience mental health problems never seek help. Many of us never recognise that the distress we feel is something that can be helped. Yet more of us feel unable to seek help because of stigma.
But there is a lot we can do.
Every day at the Mental Health Foundation we are seeing evidence of more and more employers engaging with the issue of improving mental health at work.
The key to achieving this is to create a culture that allows people to be themselves at work – this includes creating the spaces and services that let people come forward when they aren’t coping -without fear of discrimination.
Leaders set the tone for organisations. We hear of many cases where a leader facilitating discussion of mental health problems has had a significant impact on allowing people in the wider organisation to discuss those problems. Managers at all levels implement the decision leaders make – they are the first point of official contact for most employees and it’s important they can support their teams. Leaders and managers can only act if they are given the time, training and resources to so that.
Managers can also help create workplaces where people look out for mental distress in others. Learning to identify the signs that a colleague who may be stressed and struggling can be key. A simple thing like having a chat and asking what, if anything, you can do to help can be beneficial. You can also help by ensuring that your workplace doesn’t create a home for stigma – making sure that gossip about a person’s wellbeing is addressed directly and effectively.
There is significant evidence that tackling mental health problems is not just good for individuals – it is also good for productivity.
The value added to the economy by people who are at work and have or have had mental health problems is as high as £226billion per year, which is equivalent to 12.1% of the UK’s total GDP.
We also know that Kate Spade created a brand which enabled young professional women to feel confident and aspirational about their work and lives.
These are exactly the people we need to mobilise if we want to make a lasting difference to mental health going forward.
So the real question is – why wouldn’t we want to take concrete action to eradicate stigma and tackle mental health problems?
Chris O’Sullivan is Head of Workplace Mental Health at the Mental Health Foundation