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Under pressure: how fashion is harming mental health

Mental health

World Mental Health Day shines a spotlight once more on the intense pressure the fashion industry places on people working in it. 

Superstar designer Virgil Abloh announced last month that he will “shift gears” to a slower pace and take a few months off to look after his health. The Louis Vuitton men’s artistic director and founder of Off-White plans to cut back on his hectic schedule, which is said to include up to eight international flights a week.

Abloh is just one of many high-profile fashion figures who has spoken out about the toll their job takes on their physical and mental well-being. Complaints about the often-brutal pace of the industry are not new. Designer Raf Simons voiced concerns about the pressure of creating six shows a year while working at French fashion house Dior.

We are seeing more and more people talking about their mental health, which is very positive

Carolyn Mair, fashion psychologist

John Galliano, who also led Dior, blamed “workplace stress” as one of the factors behind his infamous anti-Semitic rant that led to his sacking in 2011. Meanwhile, the suicides of designers Alexander McQueen in 2010 and Kate Spade last year shone a spotlight on the intense pressures faced by those working at the top of the sector.

One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, the Mental Health Foundation reports. Research by the University of Ulster found last year that people in the creative industries are three times more likely to experience mental health issues. Fashion, with the constant pressure to be ahead of ever-faster trends, to work at unsociable hours and be on form at endless rounds of social events, presents its own unique challenges.

“Fashion expects workers to be jetting all over the world, to be available at all hours to communicate with international markets, to be totally switched on about all the information that is out, there across all platforms, and to be constantly focused on the next thing,” Caryn Franklin, fashion commentator and professor of diverse selfhood at Kingston School of Art, tells Drapers.

I know people who have worked very hard, only to be really distressed by harsh working conditions, and the lack of respect for personal and social life

Caryn Franklin, fashion commentator and professor of diverse selfhood at Kingston School of Art

Rising to the top can require people to make considerable sacrifices.

“I know people who have worked very hard to move through the industry and arrived at a position they feel is compatible with their idea of where they should be, only to be really distressed by harsh working conditions, and the lack of respect for personal and social life,” Franklin adds.

Culture change

High-profile figures such as Abloh speaking out about the need to prioritise their health has helped shift mental health higher up fashion’s agenda. The industry’s recent shift in attitude towards sustainability and fashion’s impact on the environment shows that positive change can happen, fashion psychologist Carolyn Mair argues.

“Sustainability had been on the agenda for decades and yet nothing much really happened. Now it’s really happening,” Mair says. “I think the same could happen with mental health as more people begin to speak out. We are seeing more and more people talking about their mental health, which is very positive in itself, because it’s helping to reduce the stigma associated with speaking out.

We need to work as a team to build our psychological strength

Giorgio Belloli, Farfetch

Nevertheless, she believes the infrastructure to deal with mental health issues is still developing: “Support also needs to be there – support that doesn’t stigmatise the person that reports having a mental health issue.”

The growing focus on well-being and mental health support in workplaces is a step forward. Companies across a variety of industries are waking up to the fact that looking after employees’ mental health not only leads to a happier workforce, but it is economically beneficial. Mental ill health costs the UK economy £94bn a year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has calculated. The Mental Health Foundation estimates that policies to support well-being at work boost productivity by 12%.

H&M runs internal awareness workshops for management staff in partnership with charity Mind to help employees identify mental health issues and provide support. The retailer also launched an internal campaign earlier this year called “Let’s Talk About Mental Health” to raise awareness among employees. This included interviews in its internal online magazine with staff happy to share their experiences of managing their own mental health conditions.

It’s so important that we keep working to remove the stigma around mental health and get people talking

Miles Lucas, H&M

“The feedback we had in response to [the awareness campaign] was incredible,” says Miles Lucas, country HR manager at H&M UK and Ireland. “It’s so important that we keep working to remove the stigma around mental health and get people talking.

“Fashion is a fast-paced field to work in, so we’re really conscious that we need to make sure our staff are taking the time to care for their mental health, as well as their physical well-being.”

Mindful practice

Etailer Farfetch launched a well-being strategy in the UK last year. Its workplace wellness platform offers advice and support for employees on issues from stress management to optimising sleep. The platform, devised by well-ness start-up Unmind, also offers mental health assessments and advice on internal or external services to access for further help. As well as management training in how to address mental health concerns, Farfetch trains some of its staff in mental health first aid so that they can offer support and a point of contact for their colleagues.

“Companies for years have thought about the importance of physical well-being for staff, but we also think mental well-being and support is really important and have been focusing on how we can support our Farfetchers with both aspects,” says chief commercial and sustainability officer Giorgio Belloli.

“We acknowledge that we need to work as a team to build our psychological strength, and have put in place a number of services and initiatives to help our Farfetchers focus on this.”

Young creatives are very sensitive, and they go into a highly competitive system which is quite vampiric

Caryn Franklin, fashion commentator and professor of diverse selfhood at Kingston School of Art

After Kate Spade’s death, her namesake company launched a wellness programme for employees, and pledged to donate $1m (£811,800) to mental health awareness and suicide prevention causes.

To change the fashion industry’s culture and ease the excessive demands on people at the top, there needs to be a change in how the sector treats young people starting out, in Franklin’s view.

“Fashion says proudly you need to live, breathe and eat fashion 24 hours a day,” she argues. “Young creatives are very sensitive, and they go into a highly competitive system which is quite vampiric.”

University students studying fashion are often taught early on in their careers to put work above everything else in order to make it. This conditioning can then feed into the industry’s culture once these students take their place working for retailers or in their own businesses.

Mair notes that the excessively harsh criticism many fashion students receive when showing their work has a much wider impact. “The rationale is ‘well, this is what the industry is going to put you under’, but it is quite destructive,” she says. “All it does is perpetuate that kind of behaviour. The student thinks: ’Once I’m a designer employing interns or junior assistants, I can treat them the same way I was treated’.”

Although the rise in awareness and increased provision of mental health support at workplaces is encouraging, the issue won’t be truly tackled until the industry recognises and addresses the ways in which it is contributing to mental ill health.

“It shouldn’t just be the responsibility of the person suffering from the stress to deal with it,” Mair concludes. “We need to look at the causes as much as dealing with the symptoms.”

 

 

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