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Why the creative industries need to wake up to mental ill health

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According to the latest absence figures from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), ‘work-related stress accounts for over half (57%) of all working days lost to ill health’, which is more than all other reasons for absence put together.

It’s a staggering figure and the estimated costs to UK business and government range from £74bn - £99bn, according to the Stevenson/Farmer report, an independent review commissioned by Theresa May in 2017 into how employers can better support the mental health of all people. The report found that the issue of mental ill health was a much greater problem than had originally been thought.

But far outweighing the financial cost is the human cost to individuals, their families and friends. The problem is particularly acute in the creative industries where there has been a sea change in the way companies relate with, and purchase from, their creative providers. The days of fat retainers have gone, replaced by fixed fee payments on a project by project basis. This procurement driven model can be a major cause of tension between client and creative provider, and by extension the employees of the creative company.

Marc Caulfield, CEO & founder of Demolish the Wall - a company that helps employers meet their legal and moral obligations towards the mitigation of stress and management of employee wellbeing - explains, ‘Creative people pour far more of their heart and soul into their work than more numbers based job functions. Now, due to financial performance mandates from most businesses, creativity has become a numbers game; creativity is lost, hence high levels of stress, dissatisfaction and low engagement.’

Add to this the pressures of fixed project fees, which must also incorporate client changes, agency misinterpretations and the re-work required, and all of this loads up the pressure on employees. The knock-on effect for the creative industries is more absenteeism through stress, causing greater workload on those left to deliver, and more stress and absenteeism on the creative merry-go-round. In other words, a never ending spiral until it’s last person standing, close the door and switch off the lights.

So why is it important that businesses within the creative industry look at their own employee engagement strategy to reverse this trend? In an effort to halt the rise in mental ill health issues at work and the resulting absence, the HSE has published ‘Talking Toolkit – Preventing work-related stress’, which sets out six core conversation areas for managers to concentrate on when assessing the level of stress in their organisations. The first bullet point in that document is ‘The law requires employers to  tackle work-related stress’ and the HSE will be carrying out spot checks on businesses across the UK to ensure companies have a system in place to comply with the law and can evidence that they are actively following this.

For instance, how often have you asked how someone is and they say ‘fine’? It’s the standard response, so everything’s ok, is it? Well no! From now on, employers will have to pay much greater attention to how their employees are feeling at work, and this has been reinforced by alterations to Schedule 172 of the 2006 Companies Act. This change to the legislation imposes a duty on every director to act in a way they consider to be in good faith across the wider stakeholder population, including employees. In particular, employee engagement has now been thrown into the spotlight too, explicitly highlighting the interests of the company’s employees.  Reporting this is only part of the picture, with employee engagement now becoming a fundamental issue for companies.

One of the important areas will be how employers are measuring employee health and engagement. Currently, pretty much every employee engagement survey asks employees to fill out tick boxes and rating scales and expects these to provide insightful responses into how their employees are feeling. But there are all sorts of reasons why asking people how they feel is flawed. For a start, our feelings and emotions are highly complex and we don’t consciously generate or control them. They originate in the nonconscious part of the brain, so asking people to consciously explain them only ever gets to the tip of the iceberg of how they really feel. And if you don’t know that how can you respond in the first place and keep within the guidelines and the law?

The answer is to use more sensitive and modern information gathering techniques that bypass the ‘I’m fine’ response and get to the nub of how people are really feeling. At Truthsayers, we use these techniques which, unlike traditional surveys, don’t ask any questions at all, so there’s no conscious bias or moderation in the answer, just an accurate reflection of how your employees really feel about working for you.

We have used these techniques with clients in other areas of business and, working with Demolish the Wall, have developed a product specifically targeting mental ill health, that, for the first time, will capture the gut responses of how your employees really feel. With this information you can identify how mentally well your employees are as well as identifying and tackling at an early stage issues that might lead to future mental ill health problems.

I’ll leave the final words to Marc Caulfield, a 28-year veteran of the creative industry:

"Creative businesses MUST grasp the emotional and mental health of their people and proactively deal with it. A robust and intuitive employee survey that gets to the actual answer, is the benchmark for measurement of success in mental health improvement.’"

Andy Dean is director and co-founder of Truthsayers.

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