'Look into their eyes': should we be diagnosing depression in the office?

The Marketing Society's Time to Change event with Ruby Wax

In the early(ish) days of my career, work would normally be done by 9pm or 10pm. As I waved goodbye to the other bodies still at desks on the agency floor, a Coolio lyric from Gangsta’s Paradise would often pop into my head: “as I walk through the valley in the shadow of death.”

Not because the song is catchy as hell but amongst the red eyes, shaking hands, tired limbs, tear-stained daybooks and ripped up branded stress balls it felt… oh I don’t know. It felt quite negative. In the fast-paced world of media we’re used to colleagues stressing out, losing their temper, pulling all-nighters and getting lynched via email by clients who also have a lot on their minds. But you rarely admit defeat publicly and emotionally. You ‘man up’ and take it on the chin because you’re ‘lucky’ to work in advertising (and have boozy lunches on a Friday).

I consider myself lucky to have attended an event last week held by the Marketing Society in partnership with Time to Change, starring the beautiful Ruby Wax OBE, the self-proclaimed poster girl for mental illness. The event coincided with World Mental Health Day and saw the official launch of Marketing for Change, a collaboration between the two bodies that will encourage employers in the communications biz to up their mental game.

The talk from Wax was a wakeup call. Stress, anxiety and depression can hurt you physically. Mental illness increases your chance of many cancers, affects digestion, dries your hair and skin, and not least can render you immobile, unable to even leave bed to shower. One in four of us suffer, but spotting it in others isn’t that simple because it’s easy to hide. Wax urged people to “look at the eyes. If the eyes are dead, then you know.”

But why should businesses interfere in people’s personal business? Does every office need a sort of psychological neighbourhood watch, trained in sniffing out sorrow? Well, yes. In short, depression is costing businesses cash. It’s not just those few who take time off to recover, it’s the ones that don’t, too. Sue Baker OBE, the founder of Time to Change, talked at the event of ‘presenteeism’: being at work but not really being there mentally. Depressed employees who carry on regardless are distant, distracted and deliver less. According to Sir Professor Cary Cooper of the Manchester Business School the annual cost of presenteeism is twice that of absenteeism, and only 35% of our staff are at any one time healthy and ‘present’.

But there exist solutions, of sorts. For 12 months before I went to university I worked in a school in Essex. Let’s just say this school wasn’t best friends with OFSTED, and many pupils weren’t keen on even taking, let alone passing, their exams. The teachers (my colleagues) were wonderful, brave, caring people, but the school and its culture was tearing them apart. Every day they’d congregate in the smoking room, vent, talk about feelings, failings and occasionally cry. (Completely understandable when you’re trying to successfully engage a class in which 50% of students had taken an ecstasy tablet at lunchtime.)

In the smoking room, everyone was in the same boat. That space was essential to stabilise their emotions and monitor their own and each other’s mental wellbeing. You were told if it looked like you were on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Of course, as a 19-year-old at the start of my adult life, I watched my new school-friends chain-smoking; regaling each other with tales of being punched in the face by a year 11 and decided I would never have the resilience to teach.

Safe spaces are key, everywhere. Ruby Wax is now working with Marks & Spencer on ‘Frazzled Cafe’: a registered charity that “operates with the purpose of providing a safe, anonymous and non-judgemental environment where people who are feeling frazzled can meet on a regular basis to talk and share their personal stories”. She spoke of “being with your people,” essentially others who can empathise and advise, to reinforce the fact it’s OK not to be OK (the charity’s tagline).

The marketing world is one which can intentionally cultivate stress: if you’re not working 12-hour days, you’re not working hard enough (and God forbid you make your job look easy!) For the C-suite, it may be the money argument that becomes the most compelling to date; if we can prove that caring more for people protects profits in the long run, this might be enough for any stragglers to sign up to the Marketing for Change initiative. Depressingly.

In the meantime, get a room. A room in your office for people going through a tough time. They can sit there, and talk to each other. It doesn’t have to be cheesy, or announced at your next town hall. It doesn’t need a neon sign on the door or a press release. It doesn’t need to be funny, or have a logo. It doesn’t need to contain alcoholic drinks and cupcakes. Just get a room, and see what happens. At best, you might save money and at worst, you have an empty room. But the one thing I learned last week is that ignoring mental wellbeing, as a business, is not Coolio.

Amy Kean is the vice president of strategy and planning for Beamly

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.

Come on in, it’s free.

This isn’t a paywall. It’s a freewall. We don’t want to get in the way of what you came here for, so this will only take a few seconds.