News & Views

Opinion / Keeping your Head in Advertising

by Contagious Contributor
On World Mental Health Day, Emma Lightfoot, creative director and head of copy at R/GA London, thinks about how we can facilitate a more open conversation about mental health in the workplace

At the start of 2016, R/GA relocated its New York headquarters to a state-of-the-art connected space on 33rd Street. The London office has just followed suit. We packed our bags on Friday and by Monday morning we were up and running in a new building full of promise.

A ‘connected space’ is a place where information, architecture and technology come together, but it’s the way in which these systems communicate with each other, for the good of the user, that defines the experience. Rooms adjust temperature by sensing bodies, screens announce train delays, footfall tracking manages space utilisation, responsive lighting saves energy, digital whiteboards share meeting notes. A connected space is aware. It facilitates communication, identifies the ‘state’ of things and adjusts accordingly.

But what about keeping track of state of mind? Is it possible for technology to help us address this aspect of our lives? Perhaps there’s something more basic at stake.

Advertising is my home for three days a week, but for the other two I’m training as a psychotherapist at the Institute of Group Analysis and fulfilling my honorary contract in the NHS. The concept of ‘connectedness’ dominates the conversation in both places, in very different ways. One is physical, digital and quantitative, the other in reference to our internal worlds. On a day like today it feels more important than ever to think about our culture of innovation, and how we might begin to facilitate a more open conversation about mental health in the workplace.

There’s a culture of silence in play, and even when people are brave enough to reach out, many are left with an inadequate response, as evidenced by a major study published by charity Business In The Community (BITC), in partnership with YouGov. The survey reveals bleak figures about those who suffer from poor mental health – 77% of the workforce – and the sharp reality that although 76% believe that staff wellbeing is their responsibility, 80% say organisational barriers prevent them from helping.

There’s another piece of information in the BITC study, something that strikes me as fundamental to where we find ourselves, and it’s this: the fear of interfering or not knowing what to do prevents the majority of the workforce (86%) from approaching a colleague they are concerned about. The numbers don’t add up. With 77% reporting an experience of mental struggle, and 86% saying thing they don’t know what to say, this means that a large number of people with a shared experience are simply unable to connect.

In spite of mindfulness apps aplenty, and the ever-expanding wellness industry, actual conversations about mental health in adland remain hushed. The closest we seem to get is talking about running, spinning, yoga, kale the need to calm the mind sanctioned under the guise of self-care, but still unnamed.

I wonder if, the more that we say the word ‘connected’, the harder it is to question. And the more that we’re literally digitally connected, telling stories designed for collective consumption (and likes), the more shadowy our quiet, vulnerable, messy, ugly internal worlds become. They simply do not fit. Our mental quirks and problems don’t match the neatly-constructed, hyper-connected world we’re building. These aspects of ourselves are unloved, but they’re also out of the picture because they require a very different kind of progression. They don’t need fixing; they need understanding.

It’s hard to be honest in an environment like advertising. For the most part, it thrives on competition and awards. It demands long hours and it’s still heavily male dominated. Frankly, it’s not the best set-up for owning your vulnerability, whether you’re a woman or a man. If we can start by naming our failures, by being honest, then perhaps the state of our mental health has more of a chance.

A colleague recently asked me to fix a script he’d written for Nike. He’d looked at it too many times and needed fresh eyes. ‘Make it more epic’ he asked. I tried but I couldn't do it. I softened it up instead of shaking it down. Maybe with more time and a clearer head on another day I might have cracked it. But what about the possibility that there’s somebody better for the job? What about admitting that this kind of brief isn’t my strong point? I passed it onto one of my team who speaks Nike like a boss and told him that I needed his help, that I hadn’t been able to make it work. Bear in mind that I’m Head of Copy. So I’m supposed to be an example of success. I’m supposed to be the last word on words.

This is the mantra inside our heads. Im supposed to be okay. Im supposed to be able to cope.

Like stepping in vomit on the pavement because were hooked to our phones, do we want to see what’s going on?

But there is hope. Etsy have started practicing a ‘just culture’ where employees at all levels are encouraged to document their mistakes, and how they happened, in public emails. Melbourne agency Guvnor offers staff a 45-minute paid afternoon nap break in direct response to Creative Director Tom Fitzgerald’s own, openly discussed, experience of depression. Mental health charity Mind has developed disclosure tools to help managers name the elephant in the room. Independent magazines offer an alternative to the mainstream picture of mental health. And I count myself lucky to work in a corner of advertising that values my hybrid skillset and supports my continued psychotherapy training with flexible working.

On World Mental Health Day, it’s okay to speak up. The conversation has already begun, globally. But what about the other days, the normal days, the empty everydays? And more than that, the interminable weeks and months when anxiety can’t be shaken away, when the “large, grey hinterland” of depression creeps more deeply within. If the first barrier is giving this experience a name, the second is saying it out loud. When these walls can’t be overcome, you’re on your own, struggling to hide the rising tide.

Immersed in connectivity, digital technology gives us countless opportunities to share and multiple moments of conversation. Being honest at work every day is a different matter altogether. Freedom of speech can be thought of as the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. In some senses this is mental suffering in a nutshell. It’s hard to speak up and expose your fragile state, and it can be hard to listen to someone in pain, to know what to do, to witness the trauma. No wonder we push it away. But Freuds basic message, on which all understanding of our unconscious lives is based, is this: what cannot be remembered, cannot be left behind. If we aren’t able to name and talk about the pain we’re experiencing we can’t be supported to recover. Speaking openly is our best chance to address mental health, and more than this, it’s our collective responsibility.