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The future of mental health has diversity, equality & inclusion at its core | A feature from NABS

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Among other things, the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us much about authenticity, honesty and humanity. The Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd kickstarted a new chapter in the debate on inclusivity and diversity, showing us the tangible proof that there is still a lot to do in the advertising industry – let alone the world.

If we are to make true, tangible progress in the realm of mental health and wellbeing, we can't do without diversity, equality and inclusion (D,E&I).

To learn more about such a hugely important topic, we reached out to Paul Wells, director of wellbeing services and culture change at NABS, who shared some valuable insights below.


The future of mental health is one that has D, E&I at its core

The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement opened up the essential conversation around of D,E&I in our industry. The truth is that, as shown in the All In Census, support and opportunity for those from underrepresented groups is severely lacking.

NABS strongly supported the All In Census because of our fundamental belief in the necessity of a diverse industry. The results showed clearly that action is needed to better support Black, disabled and working-class talent. Representation needed improvement across the board. Just one per cent of Black talent sit in C-suite positions, while just 9% of survey respondents identified as disabled. Meanwhile 19% of the industry hails from working-class backgrounds: adland over-indexes on those from professional families.

We’re not doing enough to support underrepresented groups in their careers in adland. Witness the 22% of disabled employees who are likely to leave their organisation, compared with our industry average of 9%.

A core reason for that is the lack of wellbeing support. While 31% of respondents said that they feel stressed or anxious, the figures for those from underrepresented groups were, tellingly, higher. A huge 45% for LGBTQ+ employees and 51% for disabled people. No wonder that so many of the latter are leaving their workplaces.

Can we do better? We can, and we must. And here’s why you should join this mission.

We have to listen, respond and build an inclusive environment that reflects our society’s diversity. It drives innovation, ignites creativity, builds lasting relationships, trust and resilience. The commercial benefits are also huge, as demonstrated in a recent McKinsey report which revealed that companies with the most diverse workforces outperformed the least diverse by just over 35%. 

The make-up of your organisation and our industry should reflect that of wider society. Advertising needs to speak knowledgeably to its audience. Diverse teams produce diverse thought and authentic work. 

What’s the essential key to making all this happen? Mental health and wellbeing support that enables your workforce to thrive. 

At NABS, we support the wellbeing of everybody working across adland. We firmly believe that wellbeing is the essential foundation for our industry. Staff whose mental health is supported are happier, more resilient, and more able to produce the fantastic work that typifies our industry at its best. They’ll stay with you because they feel valued for who they are, even when they’re facing challenges.

Conversely, a lack of mental health support can lead to low confidence, high anxiety and a host of other mental health challenges that can have ruin someone’s mood, happiness and ability to thrive and work well. In a high-pressure industry, the risks were palpable enough before the pandemic and George Floyd’s shocking murder changed our worlds forever. We’re now seeing the clear effects of recent events. Since last year, low mood has risen among NABS service users by 14%. 

While mental health support has begun to shift in the industry, progress should be punchier. We need to collectively create a future of mental health in our industry as one that has D,E&I firmly at its core.

It’s no longer enough to produce a one-size-fits all wellbeing support strategy (although sadly, some organisations are still even to do that). We need to create and offer more individualised and authentic mental health support for those from diverse groups. Doing so is vital for the recruitment and attrition of people from all backgrounds. 

When the conversation around diversity opened up in 2020, it soon became clear that there were huge challenges to overcome. Some of NABS’ Black coaching clients began to tell us about the discrimination they faced at work, from overt racism to more subtle, but no less distressing, microagressions

Meanwhile, Asian colleagues were having to cope with a rise in hate crime aimed against their communities during the pandemic. The number of such crimes reported to the police in London alone increased threefold from last March. 

We've begun to learn how Black and marginalised colleagues coped with discrimination. In our fantastic panel event People who Look Like me, held in November 2020, we heard from a panel of Black industry employees (two senior, two junior), about the mechanisms they had to employ to survive in our business. Code switching – changing your language, accent or turns of phrase. Covering – bringing food to work or wearing clothes or haircuts that reflect mainstream culture to better fit in and avoid insensitive comments from other people. Dialling down personalities in a bid to avoid criticism and negative stereotyping. These coping mechanisms are also prevalent in members of other underrepresented groups – hiding sexuality, regional accents… the list goes on.

The mental health effects of concealing yourself daily are stark. Exhaustion, depression, fatigue, low mood and – another prevalent challenge that we see among our service users – low confidence.

Add to this the trauma of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent events, which have led to anger, frustration, anxiety and fear for many Black and ethnic minority colleagues. 

If this is the current situation for too many people, what does the future look like?

The future of mental health is this: one that recognises individuality and intersectionality, with support tailored to fit each person’s needs. In doing so, employees across the board can feel welcomed and able to develop their careers while bringing their whole selves to work. And we get the benefits of a diverse and thriving workforce that reflects the make-up of our society.

It’s a huge ambition but an essential one, and achievable with the following steps.

  • Look at your existing wellbeing and mental health provision. Is it accessible to all?
  • Set KPIs for your D,E&I strategy and embed it into a workable framework aligned with your wellbeing strategy. 
  • Implement structured data monitoring and measurement across your organisation, to enable you to review annually your recruitment stats as well as the state of wellbeing and mental health across your teams. 
  • Linked to this, be honest about your starting point and listen to people when you survey them. Do they feel supported and valued? What do they most need in order to feel welcomed and included?
  • Get buy-in and engagement across the organisation. Your workforce must be educated to support colleagues from underrepresented groups. At NABS, we bring in trainers to deliver sessions, and we also encourage our team members to self-educate to build on their learning.
  • Create safe spaces where colleagues can have uncomfortable discussions and explore their use of language. Clumsiness and curiosity should be supported as mechanisms for growth.
  • Carefully align your mental health provision and employee support with hybrid working, being mindful of how our working lives may still be unpredictable (and this unpredictability may well add to existing feelings of anxiety among your teams). 

At NABS, we’re doing as much as we can to drive forward diversity internally and internally so that we can better support the mental health of everyone in our industry. We’re partnering with MEFA, Outvertising and Brixton Finishing school, and we’re continuing to increase our diversity partnerships, so that we can better understand and reach out to those from underrepresented groups. 

Internally, we have a strong and engaged D,E&I working group, made up of volunteer employees, who help to co-create and implement our D,E&I strategy and education programme.

We’re building on our events calendar to include support for diverse industry employees, such as our recent speed mentoring collaboration with Outvertising and this month’s talk on Everyday Racism with the social justice expert Hári Sewell.  

And, as ever, we offer a range of services to boost confidence, skills and to offer a listening ear, so please encourage your teams to contact us for support at any time.

For support with any of the issues mentioned above, call the NABS Advice Line on 0800 707 6607 between 9am – 5.30pm or email [email protected]


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