Alastair Campbell: Back from the brink
Alastair Campbell has used his experience of mental ill health as a platform for awareness and advocacy. He reveals his strategies for managing and supporting wellbeing
There’s a section in Alastair Campbell’s recent book Living Better in which he suggests a journalist should have written that his successful career is “in part because of” mental ill health rather than “despite” it. Semantics, perhaps, but it’s one example of how the communicator and strategist has sought to reshape the conversation around wellbeing more broadly.
“One of the reasons I’ve campaigned on mental health is to share the message that it’s not all bad. A lot of my strengths come from having had struggles and continuing to have struggles,” he says. “I think my resilience and creativity come from a place of change inside my head. One of the things that enables me to deal with pressure is dealing with mental illness.”
Campbell is best known for his work with the Labour party, helping Tony Blair win three successive general elections and serving as Press Secretary, then Director of Communications at Downing Street until 2003. He has since returned to his first career, as a writer, authoring four novels as well as taking on a busy schedule of advisory and speaking engagements.
But addressing mental health, both personally and as a public advocate, has been the role of a lifetime. Campbell experienced a breakdown in 1986 and, after instances of self-harm following his time at Downing Street, began seeing a psychiatrist in 2005. It was the first step towards rethinking his relationship with mental health and it offered strategies for balancing wellbeing with a demanding, often hectic career.
“In the ’80s, I wasn’t well. I never worried about sleep, diet or exercise. Now I do all three religiously,” says Campbell, just back from a swim at his local London lido. “I make sure I’m aware of how I’m sleeping if I’m feeling stressed. When I spot the signs, I make sure I go to bed at half-nine, regardless of what’s going on. And if I can’t sleep, I’ll read – books, not the newspaper.”
There are actions for work, too: “I colour coordinate my diary and like to keep it very flexible. Things in red have to happen. But for other shades, I feel fine moving them. I’m often honest and will say I’m not feeling great. If you’re struggling, doing a few little things sometimes makes the bigger things less daunting. I wasn’t sure I could face reading my latest volume of diaries again and labelling all 800 pages. I had planned to split the task with my publisher but by the time I got to page 50, I was really into it, and did the whole book. It’s a really helpful tactic.”
Campbell says the danger is that pressure turns into stress – “when you feel you’ve lost control of your ability to break things down and put a process in place”. His advice for leaders in preventing that tipping point is similarly pragmatic – build teams to complement strengths, skillsets and personalities. Recalling the Downing Street years in Living Better, Campbell says his PA would act as his gatekeeper, and, on one notably dark day, a deputy stepped in to conduct a press briefing.
“You’re not going to be a great leader unless you know how to build a good team and you’re not going to get a good team unless you’ve got a good strategy,” adds Campbell. “One thing I’m always looking for is how this person fits with the rest of the team. I don’t mean that I want them to be like the rest of the team – I want them to bring something different.”
Moving from the mental health of leaders themselves to supporting staff wellbeing, he outlines three actions that must be taken to bring about company-wide change: set the tone of the conversation, kickstart actions that back it up, then monitor their success.
“The most important thing a leader can do is send a message about what has to happen within the organisation,” he says. “What then has to follow are the personnel, strategies and structures that give meaning to it – appointing the right people and putting systems in place – and then making sure that they are effective.”
He sees an opportunity here for business to step up, supporting employees and pushing the conversation. An outspoken critic of governments following Labour’s 2010 defeat – on mental health and beyond – he believes business will fill the void left by what he sees as a lack of political interest.
“The government has announced the creation of an Office of Health Improvement but, if you read about it, there’s no new money behind it,” he comments. “Businesses, as employers, are as important to the mental health agenda as government. That’s where the change is going to come. The best employers are already doing it.
“Think about any problem, within your own life or within a company, it’s unlikely to be resolved unless you’re open about it. I feel the same about problems of the mind. Any place where people feel they can be as open about their mental health as their physical health, it’s going to be a healthier and happier organisation, and that means a more effective organisation.”
Living Better: How I Learned to Survive Depression by Alastair Campbell (John Murray, £16.99) is available now.