Destigmatizing Mental Health in Creative Companies

How to support some of our brightest talents

In the health and wellness marketing industry, 2018 was a pivotal year for mental health awareness, especially as it pertains to creative professions. New research, a CEO's email and an encounter onstage at a conference woke me up to the mental health crisis and led me to commit to making sure I am doing all I can to support the well-being of my team while ensuring that my workplace is stigma-free. 

The Trends Are Alarming: The Research

The Centers for Disease Control released two stunning reports addressing rising suicide rates in America. One report found that suicide rates in America are up 33 percent since 1999, making suicide the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 10 to 34. The rate is so high that lawmakers recently pushed to create a 911-like three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 

But it was the other study that really hit home for me as a creative leader, in which the CDC found suicide rates were highest for women working in the arts, design, entertainment and media. Those same fields had the second highest risk of suicide for men.

No One Needs To Go It Alone: A CEO's Lesson

What does this mean for leaders? Well, the happier and healthier our employees are, the more productive they will be, which will boost our companies' output and our bottom line. And since a major part of our job as business leaders is setting up our teams for success, doing all we can to promote employee mental wellness needs to be a core focus. 

Learning about the increased suicide rate in my field piqued my curiosity about the types of environments and initiatives that would help people with mental health challenges feel more comfortable sharing their struggles with their leadership. Right now, the majority of people do not divulge their mental health struggles to anyone, especially in the workplace. An astounding one in five people in the U.S. living with mental illness do not receive treatment due to negative stigmatization and discrimination.

So, how do we build stigma-free workplaces to ensure that anybody who is dealing with mental health challenges feels free to share their struggle? We need to stress that being transparent about mental health will not cause our employees to be penalized or treated as if they are incapable of doing great work.

Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins was so moved by the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain that he sent a company-wide email about mental health. In this moving message he took some simple steps toward making his workplace stigma-free. His email encouraged his employees to "talk openly and extend compassion." It offered simple strategies such as listening more and encouraging someone to seek help. Robbins wrote, "Each of us has a role to play in ensuring that those suffering feel less afraid to ask for support in the moment they need it most. No one needs to go it alone." 

Robbins' letter inspired me, and made me consider the workplace I have created and how it might be improved for my more vulnerable team members. So what am I doing about it? At Publicis and Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, I have an "open-door" policy—which is even easier in our new open-office layout. I make it known that I am here for my team, both for professional and personal challenges. 

I am also a huge proponent of flexible work hours because I believe that fosters creativity and offers downtime for the activities and relationships that keep us well. Downtime is especially necessary for creative thinkers, who tend to do their creating and thinking in spurts of activity rather than in eight-hour stretches. I also look forward to bringing this new understanding of the crisis facing us to my company's work with our pro-bono client, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Creatives Are Different – A Personal Anecdote

I recently moderated a panel called "Creatives Are Different" at the 3% Conference. Our discussion focused on the concept of neurodiversity and that creatives are wired differently, and the acknowledgement that there is a higher concentration of depression, ADHD and introversion in the field. One panelist bravely spoke about her struggle to find a workplace where her differences were not just tolerated but leveraged to help her produce better work. She has learned how to make the best of her creative peaks when she is feeling good, and how to talk to her employers about needing some time off when she is feeling low. 

I left that conversation inspired to do more to ensure that my employees with similar challenges can make some tweaks to be as productive. We have to be flexible. If people are productive, let them escape for a bit or take a mental health day off when they need it. We need to keep our employees feeling good, which means giving them space to create. 

2018 was the year I started thinking of mental health and suicide risks through the lens of a corporate leader. I imagine the topic of mental health will become an even bigger part of the national conversation as we head into 2019. We must figure out how to stop some of our brightest, most creative and most sensitive from failing to thrive. Our businesses depend on it.

For more information on mental illness and how to help yourself or someone you love, please visit NAMI. The current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 or 1-800-273-TALK.

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Kathy Delaney
Kathy Delaney is global chief creative officer at Publicis Health.