My business head hurts

The ‘depression stigma’ is costing British business billions.

As the UK economy slips back into recession, it’s almost possible to hear the collective sigh of the country, fearing for their jobs, their futures. It is of course a technicality. Not a lot has changed since yesterday but it’s a great media story and one that will ripple across the UK business community, questioning its fragile confidence and prodding its stomach to see if it is made of stern stuff that can cope with bad news.

Of course no entrepreneur or business leader worth their salt would cave under the pressure. Unthinkable. But what about the staff? What about the people that make the business tick, that sell and create and organise? What if they cannot cope? What if they have a sea of problems at home and this news, leading to a fear of redundancy, is the final straw? Do they need to just buck-up and carry on?

Depression costs British businesses £9bn a year in potential lost earnings (All Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics – Dec 2011) yet there is a stigma attached to depression and stress that is seemingly hard to shift.

Depression is one of those terms that is perhaps a little over-used. We’ve all done it and all heard it. Most people have at some point talked about “being depressed”, usually about the weather, but there is a belief, particularly within business, that it’s just an excuse to get off work for a bit. This has a knock-on effect. Depression is not taken seriously and real sufferers can be ignored and sometimes bullied.

It’s not just a British problem either. Earlier this month some statistics emerged from the World Health Care Conference claiming that mental health issues cost North America and Europe about four per cent of their combined domestic product, or $1.3 trillion each year. It also reported that 90 per cent of all mental health issues relate to depression and approximately 18 per cent of people in the workforce are currently battling depression.

Those are big statistics but they will do little to convince the sceptics. However it is quite clear that depression at work, whether you believe in it or not can lead to poor business performance. Brushing it under the carpet only exacerbates the problem and can lead to lost business opportunities and revenues.  That’s surely a language any business can understand.

Interestingly last year, Jo Swinson MP tabled a number of early day motions in Parliament to promote well-being, including a proposal to improve access to psychological therapies. She proposed a motion that the House “regards depression as a serious condition that can profoundly diminish a person’s wellbeing and recognises that psychological cognitive-behavioural therapy is an effective and scientifically validated form of treatment.”

It’s essentially why we set up Black Dog Tribe, to provide a sort of social therapy platform, where sufferers and carers can share experiences and hopefully help each other. What was really most healing for me when I had depression was meeting my own people, my tribe. It’s important to know you’re not alone and there is a kind of comfort in knowing that you both feel like the walking dead. It’s also such a relief to be with someone who will never say, “Perk up.”

These are small steps we are taking but what is ultimately the root cause for many people is individual business culture.  Not all businesses behave the same but where there is a culture of high octane sales and a need to impress the boss 24/7 with lots of success charts and high fives, the pressure can often be telling.

It was interesting to see the Bergen Work Addiction Scale' get some publicity recently. It looks at the kind of behaviour that is displayed by all kinds of addicts but related to the workplace. Work addiction is getting worse, according to the scale because the boundaries between home and office are becoming blurred, which leads to increased stress and in some cases breakdown. Surely these things are common sense? Businesses are as good as the people driving them but if you don’t look after your drivers you are going to crash.

 

Recession depression, Photograph: Getty Images.

Ruby Wax is the founder of Black Dog Tribe.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.