Stress Test: Should the Creative Professions Lead the Way in Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace?

While in Vienna last week I visited the art gallery housed in the baroque palace of The Belvedere.  In amongst the extraordinary collection of Klimts, Schieles and Austrian masters, one passes a room dedicated to the work of the eighteenth century Bavarian sculptor, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.

Messerschmidt’s Character Heads depict the extremes of human emotion. They are twisted in laughter, disgust and despair. They grimace, gurn and gasp for breath. Initially one can’t help admiring their modernity. The heads seem to be declaring a horror at the world around them, at the absurdity and unfairness of life itself. They reminded me of Bacon.

However, the busts really are very disturbing. Most of them portray the shaven headed artist himself. He created the sculptures by pulling faces in front of a mirror.

Messerschmidt was a troubled man. His early work had observed the baroque conventions of the day. But he suffered illness and career setbacks. He developed paranoia, hallucinations and ‘confusions in the head.’ He left Vienna to live in isolation and he told one of his rare visitors that he had to sculpt extreme emotions in order to keep ‘malign spirits’ at bay. Today we would say that Messerschmidt was suffering from some form of mental illness.

'If I cannot move the higher powers, I will move the infernal regions.'

Virgil, The Aeneid, quoted by Freud

Over a hundred years after Messerschmidt’s death, as the twentieth century dawned, Vienna became the birthplace of psychoanalysis and a centre for the study of mental health. One might expect this of a thriving, progressive, modern city that claimed Sigmund Freud as a native. But Vienna was also in the grip of political upheavals and ethnic unrest. Urban life - fast paced, impersonal and endlessly changing - brought with it stress, anxiety and fears for the future. In art the confident, optimistic iconoclasm of Klimt was giving way to the neurotic angst of Schiele. There was a growing realisation that, whilst the modern age enabled huge advances in personal freedoms and material wellbeing, it was also exacting a heavy mental price.

Fast-forward another hundred years or so to modern Britain. As we rejoice in a new revolutionary age of technology and transformation, news stories about stress at work and mental health in our schools and universities seem to be on the increase.

It’s not difficult to see why.

We’re putting more pressure on our young people to perform; we’re challenging our colleagues to change. We’re endlessly measuring and setting targets. We demand speed, agility, value and competition. Now. We set our standards by celebrity; we set our goals by prosperity. Our youth suffers social media stress and cyber bullying. Our colleagues face reduced access to housing and increased inequalities of income. They work harder and longer with diminishing job security and the office has become an unwelcome insurgent into the home. Our privacy is compromised; our security is jeopardized. And meanwhile the earth dies screaming.

For the creative professions these pressures are, if anything, enhanced. Creative people can sometimes be more sensitive, more paranoid, more ill-at-ease. It’s easy to discount these tendencies as the price you pay for original ideas. But if we value independence, unconventional spirit, eccentricity and the ability to ‘think outside the box’, we should also protect the people that embody these characteristics. We should be well aware that creativity can come at a price to mental health.

No one ever got fired for asking creative teams to work over the weekend. But maybe they should. I suspect that our industry continues to over-engineer solutions; to over-promise; and therefore to feel obliged to over-deliver. Our paranoia about losing business means that we run the risk of losing people.

I worry that the culture of ‘whatever it takes’ may not be fit for the modern age. I’m concerned that sometimes leadership piles on the pressure, when it should be taking it off.

Shouldn’t we be celebrating the leaders that deliver results without delivering collateral damage?

Isn’t the role of leadership to direct talent towards the optimal answers with the least possible waste?

Shouldn’t we think about sustainability in human, not just environmental, terms?

Creative businesses have a good record in pioneering office environments, diversity of employment, professional medical support and social responsibility. Shouldn’t we, the most exposed industry, be leading the way in providing world-class mental health care in the workplace?

Saturday 10th October is World Mental Health Day #WMHD

No. 51


What Can Dancing Horses Teach Us About Management?

I was in Vienna last weekend and attended a performance by the Spanish Riding School.

In the stately setting of the eighteenth century Winter Riding School, teams of manicured but muscular Lipizzan stallions, guided by uniformed horsemen and women, execute a series of disciplined manoeuvers. To a musical accompaniment the horses walk, trot and canter in harmony. They leap, pirouette and stand proud on their hind legs. It’s an extraordinary sight and is justly described as ‘horse ballet.’

I subsequently watched a TV documentary (Lucy Worsley’s Reins of Power: The Art of Horse Dancing) that explained that horse ballet, or ‘manege’ as it was called, dates back to the sixteenth century. The elegant dance routines have a military origin. As warfare evolved from the heavy-armoured medieval battlefield, to the more fluid, firearms-dominated combat conditions of the seventeenth century, the cavalry had to become more agile. They had to move in and out of lines of infantry, to change direction at the drop of a hat.

Manege was a method for training horses in the physical and mental demands of this new form of fighting. In the first half of the seventeenth century manege became a hugely popular sport for aristocrats across Europe with the time and money to devote to it.

I was surprised to learn that the word ‘management’ has its origins in manege. I wonder, can we learn anything about modern management from the equine activity that inspired the term?

Well, first of all, manege combines agility with control; it has a sense of elegance and finesse, as well as power and determination; a lightness of touch as well as supreme discipline. These ingredients might make the recipe for a compelling management style.

Secondly, just as manege developed in response to the combat conditions of its day, so it passed out of fashion as military practice moved on. In the English Civil War the manege-trained Cavaliers were defeated by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army. Clearly management styles must evolve as the context in which they operate changes.

Do we fully acknowledge that the management approaches of the industrial age will be increasingly inappropriate to the age of technology?

Are we nurturing management talent that reflects the commercial and cultural challenges of the future?

Do we need a new type of management that responds to this modern era of partnership, purpose and organisational change?


You May Not Want To Run at the Future, But Don’t Run Away from It

I confess I’m partial to the art of Alfred Munnings. In the first half of the twentieth century Munnings painted East Anglian life in bold, bright colours: race meetings, horse fairs and hunting; farm hands, gentry and gypsies. Mostly he just painted horses, for whom he seemed to have a greater affection than he had for people. Munnings tellingly titled one painting ‘My Wife, My Horse and Myself’ and the horse takes centre stage.

Munnings’ work is not particularly challenging or thought provoking. But it is honest, open and true. It is rooted in the English countryside and English painting tradition. It is in its own way rather beautiful.

Sadly Munnings’ reputation in the art world is tarnished. He had a passionate dislike of modernism. In his late sixties he served as President of the Royal Academy of Art and, in a speech broadcast live on the BBC in 1949, he drunkenly accused his fellow painters of ‘shilly shallying in this so called modern art’; he suggested that Cezanne, Matisse and Henry Moore had corrupted art; and he joked that he’d like to join Churchill in kicking Picasso in the arse.

Speaking from experience, as you get older you can feel marginalised. The world seems to be reinventing itself around the needs and tastes of new generations. It’s easy to resent change; and conservatism creeps over you like a comfortable blanket. We all occasionally suffer Luddite leanings.

But I’m not sure it’s always wise to ‘rage against the dying of the light.’ Or at least not in the reactionary way that Munnings did. The grumpy old man or woman is rarely attractive; and should probably avoid the sauce when speaking in public.


We’re Only Remembered for What We Have Done

The National Theatre’s production of War Horse has been in the West End for a couple of years now and it's just announced that the run will conclude in March 2016. It's a moving World War I story about the relationship between man and beast, and it has been brought to the stage with a magical deployment of puppetry.

War Horse also boasts an evocative folk sound track. One song, Only Remembered, is a contemporary arrangement of a nineteenth century Methodist hymn. In it the workers in the field consider whether future generations will remember them.

‘Shall we be missed though by others succeeded
Reaping the fields we in springtime have sown?
No. For the sowers may pass from the earth and its toiling.
We’re only remembered for what we have done.’

It’s a melancholy sentiment. In all likelihood the industry will forget each and every one of us as it moves on to address new challenges and opportunities. There’ll be no recollection of the artful salesmanship and articulate speeches; no memory of magnificent meetings, presentations and decks; no record of the hard luck stories and ‘also rans’, the brilliant idea that didn’t quite make it to production. All that endures is the work. The rest is noise. And ultimately our legacy is what we do, what we make, what we create.

‘Ye shall know them by their fruits’

No. 50