Ending The Workplace Stigma with Anxiety Empire

Words by Iman K

I often face this looming feeling of dread when it comes to thinking about my career — as most of us do, I’m sure. We live in a world where having a job determines our self-worth and this can cause insecurities, doubt, and panic to arise. I get satisfaction, a feeling of self-worth when an email pops up saying, “Yes, we’d love to commission this piece”, or when I get accepted for an interview. But, the reality is, it often leaves me disappointed in myself. It’s almost that work gives me a purpose; a temporary satisfaction. 

The pressure to be doing ‘something’ overtakes and anxiety overtakes productivity, and in turn, I put myself in situations where I have no other choice but to create excuses. It starts off with the “I’m sick” email, to then excusing myself because I’ve had a hectic week, which then leads to, “I’ve had personal issues” — but never do I explain the truth. Admittedly, I have made mistakes, but I began to question why I am making excuses, not facing my anxiety, and instead avoiding the conversation. 

When I feel anxious and struggle to go to work, I again, lie about why I need the day off — blaming it on the flu.

Iman K

Some days when I feel anxious and struggle to go to work, I again, lie about why I need the day off — blaming it on the flu. This is escapism, an attempt of escaping from the truth. The feeling of doubt kicks in and I start questioning whether my mental health is a ‘valid’ enough excuse, is it a ‘real’ enough reason to be off work? And that cycle continues. But, we must question why we feel this way. Why do we feel that our mental health should be kept private in our professional lives? Why is it deemed as not ‘real’ enough as your physical health? And why do we not have the support we need from our workplace? This is what we call, workplace stigma — and we all struggle with it.

When I discovered Anxiety Empire on Instagram, it was a sense of relief to find a space that I and other creatives could be open about the issues we face in our professional lives. It led me to question my approach to mental health, and has made me more open with my employers. In order to find out a bit more about the organisation, I had a chat with Zoë, the founder of Anxiety Empire to understand what they do and why they do it.

A number of statistics show that the majority of absences from work in the UK are related to mental health. According to the Mental Health Foundation – 1 in 6.8 people are experiencing mental health problems in the workplace (14.7%) and evidence suggests that 12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions.

The non-profit organisation, Anxiety Empire, is working to change this by raising awareness of the workplace stigma of mental health, specifically in the creative industry. They hope that business owners in the creative industry choose to advocate for better mental health for their employees. We spoke to Zoë, founder of the business and London-Berlin-based designer about what they’re doing to end the workplace stigma of mental health.

According to Anxiety Empire, 1 in 4 of us suffer from mental health illness. Yet, only 11% of sufferers talk to their employer about their mental health.

Iman K

Anxiety Empire was created out of the need for a space where creatives can start discussing issues surrounding mental health within the industry. The idea stemmed from Zoë’s personal experiences with mental health in their own workplace – they discovered that it was not only them suffering, but others too. They wanted to create change. This is when Anxiety Empire started, with the aim to help make workplaces more inclusive for people with mental health issues. Zoë explains that, “It’s not that I think employers don’t want to create better environments and structures to support the mental health of their staff, I just think they often don’t have the time or knowledge as to what to do or where to begin”.

According to Anxiety Empire, 1 in 4 of us suffer from mental health illness. Yet, only 11% of sufferers talk to their employer about their mental health. Anxiety Empire’s goal is to “support people who are suffering — for people to know they are not alone and to share information about ways to help aid their recovery — but also to help employers take responsibility and make changes in the workplace for the benefit of their employees’ mental health”.

With this in mind, Zoë believes that just as everyone has dips in their physical health, we all have dips in our mental health too — there should be no stigma talking about our mental health. Ultimately, Anxiety Empire seeks to create more openness about the topic, and focuses on showing that it is something that affects us all. Zoë suggests that the stigma is because of fear, “A fear of being seen as ‘less’, less capable at one’s job, less reliable, less able in relationships, less ‘good’ as a person”.

In order to help tackle this fear – Anxiety Empire offers talks and workshops for companies within the creative industry. Zoë who has experience as a Senior Creative in London and Berlin’s best ad and design agencies, also suffers with social anxiety and depression. The talks provide a personal perspective on mental illness and mental health. They are aimed at creating conversations around mental health and dispelling the idea that it’s something to be kept hidden. It’s a personal and open chat and an opportunity for people to ask questions. As for the workshops, they are led by an experienced business strategist, who have their own experience of mental illness. These workshops are collaborative and use a design driven methodology for employees to create their own strategies and solutions within the workplace to support better mental health.

In order to disclose the true problems of mental health awareness and support within UK workplaces, Anxiety Empire recreated the ‘Health and Safety Law’ poster. You have probably noticed a poster on a wall at your workplace which explicitly explains your rights as an employee and employer. However, this ‘Health and Safety’ information has zero mention of mental health. As we know, there is no health without mental health. Anxiety Empire created a version which contains the missing information. The purpose of it, is to highlight that mental health is just as important as physical health. Anxiety Empire focuses on creating an easy way for employers and employees to discuss the topic of mental health in their workplace. The poster highlights that all employees should have a right to work in places where risks to their mental health are properly assessed and minimised. The poster lists what you can do and what your employers can do in order to create a safe, open space to talk about mental health.

Zoë questions, “Would you ask why physical health is important?” and highlights that the creative industry still needs human heads and hearts. “We need to look after people, and make sure workplaces include a diverse set of people — which includes people with mental illness — so that we keep the best talent and support them.” They also explain that by businesses creating improved conditions for better mental health, this will then create a positive effect on the business itself, cutting down on absenteeism and improving the staff turnover.

To encourage conversation, the company has a space which allows people working in the creative industry to talk about their personal experiences with mental health via their blog.

Zoë created this space to make it easier for people to open up about their own struggles with their mental health. Their belief is that hearing the experience of others, in their own words, will help create more openness and end the stigma. Despite having this space, Zoë says, “The stigma is certainly real and a lot of people, although supportive of the blog, have said that they personally can’t talk about it [mental health] because they are either not ready, or because of the fear of how they might be perceived”. 

On the blog, founder Zoë explains their personal struggles with their mental health within their workplace. They call it, “Coming out: Round II”. In their blog post, they open up about their own experiences and explain when they first ‘came out’ as gay. They compare this experience of coming out to being similar to someone who attempts to openly admit their difficulties with mental health in the workplace. Zoë explains that being open about their mental health at work for this first time was a big deal for them. They explain, “It wasn’t just about being open about my mental health, I was being open about me, who I am. I was no longer prepared to feel ashamed about that”. They go on to say, “If we want the stigma around mental health to reduce then, I believe, we need people in positions of responsibility and power to be open about their mental health in the workplace. It’s normal. I’ve got issues. 1 in 4 of you will have them too”.

Zoë’s best advice for those who are experiencing mental health discrimination in their workplace is to: Be open and talk. They suggest to first try and resolve the problem informally and become aware of the Equality Act 2010 which gives people the right to challenge mental health discrimination. If the discrimination can’t be resolved informally, then people can lodge a formal grievance, or take the issue to an Employment Tribunal.

For those also experiencing discrimination, they explain, “It is likely to be a stressful experience, people feel they have too much to deal with, so I would advise talking to people who they trust, at the job, or outside of it, to have an ally on their side – people who can help them resolve the situation”. They also encourage people to listen and get educated, “Don’t assume everyone suffers in the same way”. They hope one day the stigma around mental health will be gone, and there will be no longer any need for Anxiety Empire to exist. Until then, Zoë hopes they can grow and support people to reach that place quicker.

To myself, and to those also facing this struggle — we must work together to end the workplace stigma, fight to bring awareness that mental health is just as real as physical health, be open and remember to take space for ourselves when we need it.