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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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.