Mental illness can boost capability long-term

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Those who've experienced mental ill health can be the most resilient and creative

Employers must reframe how they see employees who’ve experienced mental ill health, according to former Downing Street press secretary Alastair Campbell.

Speaking at the Good Day at Work Conversation 2017 event, Campbell described how when choosing between two candidates with impressive CVs, but where one had taken nine months out because of an addiction the majority of employers would shy away from the latter individual.

He warned this could be a serious error, with that candidate potentially more capable. “If that person has been through all of that they’ll bring such resilience, they’ll probably be more empathetic,” said Campbell, who has experienced alcoholism and bouts of depression in the past, and was admitted to hospital in 1986 following a psychotic episode.

Campbell cited Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin as examples of high-achieving individuals who all experienced mental health issues.

Speaking to HR magazine before his presentation, Campbell said enhanced capability and resilience through overcoming mental ill health was very much his personal experience. “Some of the most creative stuff I’ve ever done has been coming out of a depression. I wrote one book in nine days coming out of a depression; I rewrote it a few times but it’s what’s basically there,” he said.

“It may be that within that cohort [of people suffering mental ill health] are the people who are more talented, more creative, more resilient, better team players, have better ideas,” Campbell told HR.

Fostering cultures of openness around mental health in the workplace is about recognising that every single person “has mental health” in the same way as everyone experiences good and bad physical health, said Campbell. Referring to the statistic that one in four adults have been diagnosed with a mental illness at some stage during their lifetime, Campbell told HR magazine: “I actually want to move to ‘one in one of us has mental health'. Some days good, some days bad.”

Campbell added that breaking down stigma at work can only go so far if government backing isn’t there. “We can’t have a transition where we’re encouraging more and more people to be open, but then they find the services aren’t there,” he said in his presentation.

Speaking on a panel discussion after his talk, Campbell cited mental health ambassadors as a good practical step employers can take. “I think if we leave it all to leaders it will be too variable. The next step is every branch of every business having someone who is a mental health ambassador,” he said, adding that they didn’t have to be titled as such, and citing the example of ‘mothers and fathers’ at one of the newspapers he’s worked on.

“That person should be a ‘life problems person', not a metal health ambassador,” agreed Sarah Coghlan, global director of men's health promotion at The Movember Foundation. “Making that person a ‘mental health ambassador' will probably scare some people off.”

Also speaking on this panel was Cary Cooper, 50th anniversary professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School and co-founder of Robertson Cooper. He said the part of promoting good mental health many in HR “have not grasped yet” is that: “we don’t have the right line managers".

“Do we have the right managers from shop floor to top floor, who give realistic deadlines, manageable workloads, tell people when they’ve done a good job?” he asked, adding that Brexit worries him in relation to the nation’s mental wellbeing: “I’m worried about the mental health of the country after Brexit. I’m worried for HR… what people are thinking about their level of job insecurity… because we have enough on our plates.”

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