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Alastair Campbell: the importance of mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

If you were ever wondering whether to make a change in your career but not sure if it’s possible, Alastair Campbell is proof that it’s never too late.

He has transformed himself countless times, from successful tabloid journalist to Tony Blair’s right-hand man, then onto author and campaigner, consultant and public speaker.

Not without ruffling a few feathers along the way. The one thing that has remained a constant throughout all of these manifestations has been his commitment to being open and honest about his battle with mental health. Campbell first decided to open up about his depression and addiction problems after suffering a breakdown in the 1980s, which left him hospitalised.

He says: “When I went back to my old job, I remember feeling a very strong instinct that I should just be very open about everything. I felt strong from opening up, and I have never regretted it.”

His long career is evidence that it is possible to be both open and honest about your mental health and be professionally successful. And now he’s keen to show that others can do this too.

In July, he took part in a Brain Forum debate on the mental health crisis in a knowledge economy, which explored how an increased reliance on intelligence and knowledge-based activities can take a toll on mental health. It explored the enormous drag mental health problems, and the 400 million people around the world they affect, have on global productivity, on top of the health-related burden.

As an outspoken critic of government, it is perhaps unsurprising Campbell attacks what he sees as the Conservatives’ lack of action on mental health. He says: “I’m not 100% sure government gets mental health. It is not doing what is needed in terms of keeping it rising up the agenda,” he says.

“It has made progress, but still has a long way to go. Some people still don’t understand it the way they understand physical illness and that’s a real difficulty.”

Instead of relying on policy, Campbell argues the workplace and its leaders can make instrumental change.

He adds: “Employers should be part of the message that says, we are not going to recover or make the best of ourselves as a sector and firm unless we understand the fundamental role mental health plays in our people.”

COVID consequences

He is particularly concerned of the mental health fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the lasting impact this will have on business and the wider public, including himself. “At the start of the pandemic I was going a bit mad, literally writing dozens of articles. I’d persuaded myself I could make a difference and then realised, do you know what, you can’t. And that’s depressing when your life is campaigning and trying to make change, you look at someone like Johnson and think, he really doesn’t give a shit what you think, he really doesn’t care.

“When I get depressed, I find my mind catastrophising, but now there’s this universal anxiety and a necessity to stay at home. This is why the worst impact of this appears to be on those who already have mental health conditions; their depression, anxiety and loneliness is exacerbated.”

It’s here where Campbell truly believes HR can make a real difference. “The workplace has got to take a leadership role in this. These people will be feeling alone, so employers need to understand that they are nothing without what the employees do. The people who do know that are really going to feel that and the contribution.”

He’s optimistic that coronavirus could actually bring about positive change for UK workers. “People are going to have to change the way they work and there will be lots more people working from home. The office will undoubtedly change, and we will need a lot more trust between employer and employee about what they do and how they do it,” he says.

Valuing people has always been a fundamental pillar of Campbell’s leadership, and his consultancy work now focuses on this as a principle of successful business. A keen sports fan, he stresses the importance of teams when creating a sense of collaboration and togetherness.

“One of the reasons I love sport is because I think teams are the best things you can build. You get that feeling of different qualities and talent coming together and somehow it works – there’s no better feeling in the world. It works instinctively as opposed to organisationally, but the next steps are then to take it up to an organisational level.”

Campbell may not be the first choice when the idea of a ‘good leader’ springs to mind. For years, the press fuelled the caricature of the angry spin doctor of Number 10. The truth of this is still up for debate, but the Campbell HR magazine speaks to seems to be coming from a very different place.

“I can be very assertive and strong minded, but I don’t think anyone there who worked with me said I bullied them. One of the things I’m proudest of is none of the people who worked directly with me ever came and slagged me off – and trust me they had plenty of opportunities to.”

Creating a sense of togetherness that enables employees to openly share emotions, whether good or bad, takes time. To improve this employee experience, Campbell argues that HR should stop obsessing over workplace benefits and instead address the wider business culture.

He says: “It’s got to be more than we’ve got fruit in the building and we’ll give you a cheap gym membership. There has got to be understanding and openness. Some people don’t want to be confronted about their feelings or mental state and I get that.

“But we’ve got to get to a place where, if people feel they’ve been pushed too far, they can talk, safe in the knowledge it won’t be held against them. And that’s cultural.”

Banks on board

He says one of the more surprising sectors to have really taken on board the message of valuing its people and creating an open workplace environment is banking, which he argues is now beginning to lead with a people-first mindset.

“Since the financial crash, I’ve done a lot of work with the banks and they have definitely moved in terms of their assessments and how they look after their people. I’m not saying they are doing this out of the goodness of their heart – I think they’ve figured it out,” he says.

“They were all impacted by the crash and not just financially. Lots of them lost someone to suicide, most of them have people who burnt out and cracked up and the employers had to pick up the pieces every time.

“However, if you can invest in people and give people the chance to make themselves – and I hate the phrase, but – ‘be the best that they can be,’ you can really help them. It’s not just about pushing them until they’re burnt out, but figuring out how they can become the best person they want to be long-term, and how they can make a big contribution to their workplace.”

It’s hard not to get caught up in Campbell’s passion and sincerity when it comes to mental health, particularly when he begins to discuss his late brother who suffered for many years with schizophrenia.

Like almost every topic we touch on, Campbell is refreshingly honest. “He passed away at 62, which is far too young. I’m looking at a picture of him now, actually.

He had a pretty good life considering that he had this condition, but he needed to be heavily medicated all the time.” Given his personal experiences of mental health issues, does he ever get annoyed with the cult of self-care which seems to suggest a bath bomb and a few sun salutations can help cure you of your condition?

“I’m not into yoga or herbal tea, and you will always get people who will jump on the latest fad. But I do like the idea that we’re thinking of doing things to counter our poor mental health. That demonstrates a culture change in itself, that you’re taking care of yourself and building resilience.”

And it’s this change in mindset that workplaces can help to implement. “One of the worst things about depression is the anxiety attached to it that you can’t make small decisions you wouldn’t even waste two seconds on. You find yourself ruminating and can’t decide which makes you feel worse about yourself,” he says.\

“So it’s important to be able to say to someone at work who won’t hold it against you that ‘I’m not feeling great and not making good decisions at the moment.’ A good colleague or boss will say, ‘do you want to go for a walk or chat about what’s wrong?’ Or they will give you a menial, boring task to take the pressure off you.”

Keeping busy

When not editing The New European, hosting a podcast or holding the government to account, Campbell likes to help ease his depression through exercise, swimming or learning a new skill.

His partner recently bought him a subscription to a German language teaching program, which he says has helped keep his mind ‘elsewhere.’ Yet he’s never too far away from the next battle.

“I’m really worried about what impact the recession will have on Britain’s workforce. Recessions tend to make it worse for people where all that matters is survival and all that matters is the bottom line. Both employer and employee should be mindful that that is happening and take care accordingly.”

Interviewing someone as high profile as Campbell, one inevitably has preconceived ideas of how he will come across – bullish, forthright, indignant. He was perhaps all of these things, but also considered, calm and extremely compassionate. Too often we make presumptions about other people without knowing what’s going on below the surface, be that mental health, financial instability or physical sickness. Meeting Campbell was a reminder that we can all do more to counter own our prejudices and help those in need.