Changing perceptions of mental health

February 26, 2015

Media coverage of mental health in the workplace has changed remarkably quickly in recent years in the UK. It has been fascinating to watch – and to play a small role in pursuing that change.

Mental health has featured heavily in the news over the last week. Reports that the co-pilot of the tragic Germanwings Flight 9525 aeroplane that was crashed into the French Alps on 24 March was suffering from depression have caused much discussion in the mainstream and social media about workplace mental ill-heath and the threat to public safety.

Some of this was sadly predictable – with headlines containing words like “nutter” and “crazed” and radio talk-shows debating the jobs from which anyone with a history of mental ill-health should be barred. But overall, stories and opinions in the media have largely been balanced and intelligent. Many have pointed out that depression does not turn people into mass murderers, and that bizarre and unpredictable events are not a good basis for policy decisions.

This open-minded and positive attitude towards mental health is relatively new. Until very recently, workplace mental ill-health was rarely discussed in the national media. But for a number of converging reasons it has quickly become a regular topic in the features and business pages of UK national newspapers. Moreover, the coverage has been unvaryingly supportive of those wishing for mental health to be discussed in the same way as physical health.

In 2013, while head of corporate communications at law firm Linklaters, I was asked if I would provide some strategic communications advice to a newly-created organisation called the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA) that was being set up by the firm in conjunction with Goldman Sachs and KPMG. The purpose of the CMHA was to make mental health a board-level concern for major employers in the City, share best practice among member firms and increase understanding of mental health. The CMHA now has 26 member organisations – banks (including Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Barclays, BNY Mellon, HSBC, Lloyds, Morgan Stanley and UBS), law firms (including all the Magic Circle firms), accounting firms (all the Big Four) and organisations such as the Bank of England and the City of London Corporation.

Getting positive, or at least balanced, media coverage about mental health in the City was seen as a priority. Sadly, there had recently been a number of suicides and some press stories had linked these to banks (in particular) with practices that created overworked and overstressed employees. Given that the issues are cultural ones affecting all City firms, the CMHA was well placed to offer the media an industry-wide viewpoint and take some of the heat off individual banks and other City employers.

In terms of positive media coverage, it has been a great success, with more than two dozen supportive features looking into the issue of mental health in the City over the past year in leading publications such as the Financial Times (which ran a series of articles on the issue), The TimesThe Daily Telegraph and theLondon Evening Standard, as well being at the centre of two BBC Radio Four documentaries.

While the CMHA has played an important role, we have been riding a wave of growing interest in the issue through the opening of a Priory clinic in the City and high-profile bank leaders admitting to stress problems. The chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group, Antonio Horta-Osório, was diagnosed with extreme fatigue and stress just eight months after starting his role, and Sir Hector Sants resigned from Barclays after taking sick leave for exhaustion and stress. Once, this would have been hushed up, but these public admissions of mental ill-health have enabled others to be more open about the problems they have faced. More people in the City are now talking about how they have managed their illness. There is a long way to go but the stigma of mental ill-health is beginning to soften.