A personal story about mental health at work

Mental health at work

Marc Caulfield on mental health at workMarc Caulfield, CEO of Demolish the Wall, tells of his own struggles with illness to explain why employers need to improve their awareness of, and response to, mental health issues

Mental health is a subject that’s very close to my heart. I have suffered illness for many years – some of those years in silence and some with professional help.

I started my career in 1989 as a media buyer at advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. My first day there included a three-hour pub session. At 19 years old, I thought I was in heaven.

Things really took off for me a few years later when I joined MediaCom. I had a brilliant boss, learnt loads and earned several promotions and pay rises there. All was good in my world. By 2000 I was at the peak of my confidence.

But what I didn’t realise was that this confidence – or arrogance, as some people would have said – was an act. I had created this persona out of very fragile self-belief and, ironically, little real faith in my own abilities.

I didn’t realise then that I was “self-medicating” myself into a mess with some of my behaviour. As undiagnosed anxiety and depression took hold, things I used to love doing, such as pitching and presenting in general, became a living nightmare.

Sometimes I couldn’t even get my words out during meetings. I was having panic attacks without realising what they were. It sometimes felt as if I was being throttled.

Grasping the lifeline

Once bouts of uncontrollable crying became a regular feature of my commute, I decided that I had to act before it all fell apart.

I had suddenly gone from thinking “I can do anything I want” to “I can’t get out of bed in the morning and I hate myself”. I was even having suicidal thoughts.

I had a series of unsuccessful meetings with counsellors and psychotherapists until I found the right one. She was brilliant. I told her things about me that no one else knows.

I saw her once a week for four years. Over that time she changed my life. She taught me: why I do certain things; not to beat myself up; to remove myself from certain situations; and that it’s OK if I never “rediscover the old me”, since that person wasn’t me in the first place.

Two-and-a-half years ago I left the advertising industry after 27 years. I now run Demolish the Wall, a mental health consultancy, with Jon Waters, another former ad man.

Cause and effect

The advertising world is full of brilliant individuals doing amazing work. But this high-pressure industry, where firms pitch relentlessly for work with ever-shrinking margins, has a culture of long hours and heavy drinking. Substance abuse is still rife too, whatever people may say. It’s merely more discreet than it used to be.

This dangerously heady brew undoubtedly causes many problems for the talented people who earn their living from it. But this is not the preserve of the ad industry. In our work at Demolish the Wall we’ve yet to find a sector that doesn’t face similar problems.

It is quite simple: unrelenting pressure leads to stress. Where this goes unabated – which happens in many organisations – stress often leads to anxiety and/or depression.

Sobering stats

The mental health arena is full of statistics, but here are some of the more revealing ones:

* “Mental illness is the largest single source of burden of disease in the UK,” according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

* In any given year, one in four adults in the UK will experience a mental health problem.

* Mental illness accounts for 91 million lost working days a year, costing the British economy £30bn.

* University students are three times more likely than the national average to suffer from poor mental health.

* One in 10 children aged five to 16 have a diagnosable mental health condition.

* Three-quarters of all mental health problems are established by the age of 24.

As the above figures indicate, a significant number of young people entering the workplace will already be in poor mental health. Employers simply cannot ignore such worrying research findings.

Mental health and the onus on employers

So how should business leaders go about making their people happier, more engaged and productive? First, they should approach mental and physical ill-health in the same way.

The word “stigma” is massively overused in mental health circles, but the simple fact is that you can’t talk about your mental health as openly as you can about your physical health.

Anyone who bravely states that they are taking sick leave because of a mental illness should be treated in the same way as someone with the flu by their employer. Indeed, the Equality Act 2010 states this very clearly.

We know that the demands of the latest generation of job candidates often differ from ours when we were starting our careers.

Employment policies and practices aimed at improving people’s work/life balance and wellbeing have become important to these potential recruits. Ensuring that your business is “match fit” in this area is more crucial than ever.

Enterprise is categorically about people. As Sir Richard Branson says: “Look after your people, they will look after your clients and they will look after your business.” This is surely what every organisation wants, so let’s work together to achieve it.

If you happen to be suffering mental ill-health yourself, don’t be ashamed. I would urge you to read Depressive Illness: The curse of the strong by Tim Cantopher. This clearly demonstrates how it takes a strong person to suffer from mental illness, as weaker individuals simply may not care enough to get depressed. It certainly made me feel better about myself.

Demolish the Wall offers a consultancy and training service designed to help organisations and their people deal effectively with mental health issues and ensure their legal compliance in this area.

Click here for an interview with Poppy Jaman of Mental Health First Aid England

About author

Marc Caulfield

Marc Caulfield

Marc Caulfield is CEO of Demolish the Wall, a consultancy and training service designed to help organisations and their people deal effectively with mental health issues and ensure their legal compliance in this area.

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