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Does Fashion Have a Mental Health Problem?

Fashion’s unique pressures can leave its workers vulnerable to mental health issues, impacting employees and employers alike. What can the industry learn from other sectors?
Source: Costanza Milano for BoF
  • Helena Pike

LONDON, United Kingdom — Aristotle said: "No great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness." In the fashion industry, the existence of a link between creative genius and mental ill health has long been a matter of debate. Certainly, some of the industry's top designers have struggled with mental health issues.

What is indisputable is that fashion professionals across the board — not just creatives — face a unique and uncompromising set of pressures. With its emphasis on constant re-invention and staying ahead of trends, the sector is inherently fast-paced and relentless, making it a stressful environment for workers at all levels.

“Anyone working in creative industries, especially fashion, knows only too well the challenging nature of the job,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, a mental health charity. “Despite being hugely rewarding, the combination of high stress and long hours make for a workplace that isn’t always conducive to good mental health.”

Fashion is also a culture, as much as an industry, blurring the lines between work and private life to a degree not seen in other sectors. “As a business, [fashion] demands way, way more hours from its workers than they are contracted to do. It expects 24-hour interest and availability,” says Caryn Franklin, fashion commentator and professor of diversity at Kingston University. “That can impact on a person’s sense of balance and serenity.”

What's more, participating in the culture of fashion can often mean a packed social schedule of dinners, parties and other events. The industry's emphasis on perfection, often within a narrow standard of beauty, can also exacerbate pressures. "You've got to be perfect and you've got to be on the ball all the time, you've got to be networking, you've go to be going to these parties, drinking with the other people … and yet, you've got to be up the next day," says Dr. Carolyn Mair, subject director of psychology at London College of Fashion and chair of the London and home counties branch of the British Psychological Society. "It's very difficult for people to maintain that level of energy and the lifestyle and the creativity."

Fashion companies need to be more responsible with mental health issues amongst their employees.

One London-based creative director, who requested anonymity, recently took several months off work to recover from stress-induced mental health issues. “As I progressed through my company, things only sped up,” he says. “Expectations were high and the momentum got to the point where I was taking on too much work, pushing myself too far. [When] I finally crashed … I was exhausted like never before — bed ridden, broken mentally and physically. Since I’ve returned to work, I’ve identified my own behavioural symptoms in other people — the short attention span, negative thinking, being driven by ‘the fear’ — but the adrenaline just keeps them going.”

Of course, the fashion cycle is only getting faster and more stressful for those who work in the industry. Today, designers typically produce six or more collections each year. “There’s far more pressure on people to be creative all the time, to be productive and moving forwards and making ever more collections … without the time to really reflect and think,” says Dr. Mair.

Yet the issue isn't unique to fashion. Other high-pressure sectors, like banking and technology, also face their own share of mental health problems. “The number of people saying that they have experienced mental health problems while in employment has climbed from a quarter to a third,” says Mind’s Emma Mamo.

The problem is bad for employees and employers alike. For businesses, the impact of poor mental health can be severe, reducing productivity and increasing absenteeism. It’s also bad for the overall economy. A 2015 study by Harvard and Stanford business schools estimated that job-related stress costs the US economy $210 billion a year.

And while fashion has lagged behind, many businesses in other sectors have begun introducing initiatives that target mental wellbeing in the workplace with impressive results.

“[Fashion] companies need to be more responsible with mental health issues amongst their employees,” says Fabian Hirose, a management consultant who hosts workshops on preventing "burnout" in fashion. “Fashion is not worse [than other industries]. You can imagine the pressure in an industry like banking … [But] when you go to the banking industry, they send you to coaching or training. They do things to make that professional stronger.”

If you go to Saint Martins, if you go to the London College of Fashion, they are not training them how to manage time and how to manage stress.

Indeed, in 2013, a group of high-pressure businesses including banks and law firms such as Deloitte, Clifford Chance and Linklaters, established the City Mental Health Alliance, a London-based organisation that promotes discussion of mental health in the workplace.

British Telecom, a global communications company that has almost 90,000 employees, introduced its “Positive Mentality” programme back in 2006, providing employees with a “BT Mental Health Toolkit” with information on how to stave-off and combat mental health issues. The company has since seen a 30 percent reduction in employee absence.

Meanwhile, Unilever, which has identified mental ill health as one of the top three risks to its employees, has managed to improve employee mental resilience by 40 percent through a variety of initiatives including a UK-specific mental wellbeing programme launched in 2014 that resulted in a 20 percent reduction in days lost to mental ill-health in its first year. The following year saw the launch of a health and wellness steering committee to address mental as well as physical and emotional health at the company.

After an audit revealed EDF Energy, a major electricity and gas company in the UK, was losing £1.4 million ($1.74 million) in productivity each year as the result of mental ill health amongst employees, the company introduced a two-pronged initiative to tackle the issue. First, it trained over 1,000 managers to recognise and respond to the symptoms of mental ill health, in much the same way businesses often train employees in basic first aid skills. It also offered workers psychological support and cognitive behavioural therapy, a type of psychotherapy used to treat mood disorders by challenging negative patterns of thinking, that would help them better look after their own wellbeing and manage workplace pressures. As a result, job satisfaction rose from 38 to 68 percent at the company, which saw annual savings of £228,000 (around $284,150) — more than 16 percent — through improvements to productivity.

By comparison, fashion workers are underprepared for managing the pressures of the industry and the ability to look after their own wellbeing. Some business schools, such as New York’s Columbia Business School and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School, have offered workshops in mindfulness, self-awareness and career fitness, but, says Hirose, “If you go to Saint Martins, if you go to the London College of Fashion, they are not training them how to manage time and how to manage stress.”

According to Dr. Mair, “It’s all about developing strategies to make us more resilient. If we are more resilient, we can manage those negative situations much better and we may not be as susceptible to serious mental health issues. Stress is inevitable, but [we can learn to] deal with it in a positive way.”

The lack of understanding about mental health simply creates a breeding ground for it.

Many businesses also now offer corporate health and wellness programmes that encourage workers to take time out from the office to look after themselves physically. Large corporations like Google and Apple are well known for providing subsidised gym memberships, nutritional education and access to free or reduced cost healthcare, while businesses such as BP have implemented incentivised “Get Fit” schemes that have helped reduce the number of employees that are overweight or suffering from weight-related diseases like diabetes.

“Some industries allow people to go to the gym, to look after themselves. They treat their staff well and in the end, this reflects well on the industry,” says Dr. Mair. Indeed, physical health has a direct impact on mental health, with multiple studies showing that exercise can help reduce problems such as anxiety.

But perhaps most importantly, to support their workers and limit the negative impact of mental ill health on their businesses, companies need to address the taboo surrounding this issue. At the moment, prevailing stigma around mental illness means that very few who suffer from mental health issues are willing to discuss their problems, making it more difficult for companies to provide support. A recent joint survey by Mind and YouGov revealed that almost 30 percent of workers in the UK said they wouldn’t talk openly with their line manager if they were overly stressed, while less than half of those diagnosed with a mental health problem had told their current employer.

The culture of fashion only amplifies this issue. “The desire for membership … and the attraction of working in fashion is very strong for all of us,” says Kingston University’s Franklin. “[There is] a fear of loss of status and loss of security if someone speaks out.”

Opening up a discussion about mental health is the first step in helping sufferers find a way to cope with their problems. “The lack of understanding about mental health simply creates a breeding ground for it,” says the creative director, who wishes to remain anonymous. “Of course, we need education and support systems in place, but it’s only by talking about mental health that we can start to initiate change.”

There are few sectors of the economy that offer as wide and interesting a range of career opportunities as fashion. To browse hundreds of jobs from leading brands, visit BoF Careers.

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