According to numerous reports 1 in 4 of us factually suffer with a form of mental health, so why isn’t this a mainstream conversation, especially within the workplace? The UK economy loses roughly £12.5 million due to lack of productivity at work brought on by anxiety, stress and depression. Therefore, surely business leaders who know the extent of these productivity issues in the UK would like to better their organisations from an ethical and economical point of view.
This week is Mental Health Week, Alastair Campbell is one of HRD Connect’s Mental Health Role Models a dedicated campaign speaking to business leaders about their own mental health, thereby creating a ripple affect allowing every single person within an organisation to speak up and share their mental health problems.
Alastair Campbell has had a well-documented and renowned career within politics, he was Tony Blair’s Press Secretary, a role that Campbell turned down numerous times due to his fragile mental health. Campbell helped build the Labour Party’s political image which saw them soar to popularity throughout the 90s. All the while Campbell was battling his own personal issues, in a position of ever mounting pressure, that couldn’t have been an easy feat.
HRD Connect speaks exclusively to Alistair Campbell about his own personal story with depression, Tony Blair’s attitudes towards his mental health and how we need to consider that it’s not one in four of us that have mental health, it’s one in one.
Can you tell me specifically what mental health issues you live with?
I have had one episode of psychosis for which I was hospitalised, issues of addiction and ongoing depression.
“I actually think we need to move away from the one in four message. One in one of us have mental health and just like physical health some days it is better than others. But being able to be open about it helps everyone.”
Can you outline your own experiences with mental health, what situation happened just before you became Tony Blair’s spokesman/campaign director in ‘94?
I had a breakdown in the 1980s which led to me being arrested for my own safety and released on the condition that I went to hospital. I was advised to stop drinking and did so for 13 years. I think it was some time after that I realised I was probably prone to depression but didn’t really do anything about it.
What was Tony Blair’s reaction when you told him about your personal mental health, did he ever doubt your ability to do the job?
I don’t think he did, but I did.
I was worried, having broken down once that I might do so again, as I knew the pressure of the role would be very intense. I told him in some detail about my issues past and present. He said that he wasn’t bothered if I wasn’t bothered. I asked him what if I was bothered. He said, ‘I’m still not bothered.’
“I think employers are the key to the change we need, even as important as government.”
How did his reaction make you feel?
I thought it showed he was determined to hire me. But also, that he did not define me or anyone else by mental health issues. I think too many employers do that.
What could other leaders learn from Blair’s attitude when managing employees mental health in a workplace environment?
That if we only see the problems in people, we overlook the possibilities. I often feel people who have been on the edge, or who know what mental suffering is, are better able to deal with some of the issues that you face in high pressure situations.
Have you ever felt ostracised due to your mental health?
No. I’ve been very lucky. But I think that was because I never felt ashamed and so was always very open. I don’t allow the stigma and taboo to affect me. But I know that is hard for most people. I was lucky in the people I worked with, the family and medical support I had.
We all have mental health, some more extreme than others – how can business leaders orchestrate unstigmatised conversations and cultures which are fully inclusive without being patronising?
Your answer is in your question. Just do it. Sign up to time to change. Learn from the best of the best. Follow their lead and their example. I think employers are the key to the change we need even as important as government.
When will all organisations start to address this as a real business issue and not just a ‘nice to have’?
I actually think this is all included within the stigma around mental health. Yes, it’s is changing, but the change is too slow.
We must get to a position where business understands it is not serving its own interests well by failing to ensure stigma-free workforces where people’s talents are properly recognised and utilitised. There is a human argument, but also an economic argument too.
I actually think we need to move away from the one in four message. One in one of us have mental health and just like physical health some days it is better than others. But being able to be open about it helps everyone.
“There should be parity between physical and mental health.”
Do you think it’s important for public figures to be honest and show vulnerability when it comes to personal mental health experiences, in a bid to role model this behaviour and normalising it to the masses?
I hope so.
People certainly say so, and I see more and more people are doing it. However, I think we are long way from where we need to be.
Companies are starting to recognise mental health, and vow to make it a key consideration going forward… why wasn’t this the case 10, 15, 20 years ago?
Because of the stigma. I think awareness campaigns have helped. The media has been pretty good on this too. But if you consider there isn’t one single person alive who doesn’t know someone with mental health issues, therefore I think these personal experiences allied to campaigns are having a positive effect.
What would be your advice to those who struggle to talk to their employees about mental health, perhaps see it as an ‘inconvenience’ and don’t believe it’s as real as physical illnesses?
I would tell them they are wrong.
I would also point to people like Churchill, Lincoln, Darwin, Florence Nightingale and tell them some of the greatest leaders and achievers of all time were mentally ill, and more to the point, their illnesses were part of what made them great.
What would be your ideal for the years to come when it comes to mental health stigma within business and general life?
As much as I enjoy doing my campaign work. My ideal would be that we don’t need to talk about it anymore. I am getting a bit fed up of going to events and everyone saying how good it is that we talk about these things now. When in actual fact, we have been talking for a long time. Can we please just get to a place where all of us; governments, businesses, individuals can actually deliver on the words in the NHS constitution, that there should be parity between physical and mental health.