25th November, 2019 | Queen Elizabeth II Centre
25th November, 2019 | Queen Elizabeth II Centre

Tom Kirkham – Where Music Meets Mental Health

In our pursuit of companies and characters who share our commitment to tackling mental health challenges in the workplace, This Can Happen has found inspiration in some very unlikely places.

One such individual is Tom Kirkham whose book Pop Life is an unfiltered, funny and insightful journey through his relationship with music, work and mental health. By sharing his story Tom offers up some truly unique insights and innovative ideas for business to look after their staff more effectively.

He spoke to This Can Happen about how throwing himself into work simply was not the answer and how he feels businesses could work better to become happy and healthy places for their employees to thrive.

Q. Tell us about yourself – your background, and your inspiration for writing this book.

A. I’ve worked in marketing and communications since the good old days when our industry still used fax machines to send out press releases. By day, I was a comms consultant, but by night I was an obsessive music fan and guitarist in an under-achieving pop band. This was my party trick – my way of standing out from the masses. We had an album released in Japan and everything!

Things seemed to be going alright until 2015/16 when I had a nightmare year, left my job and my life basically fell apart. Our band stopped playing, I fell out of love with music and my world went silent.

Then Prince, my musical idol died, and amidst the shock and horror of the news, the only thing I could do was to throw myself back into music with as much force and conviction as I could muster. Pop Life tells the story of that journey and where it took me over the following year as I attempted to overcome Prince’s death, get my groove back, and more generally start to repair 20-odd years of neglected mental health using music as my tonic.

Q. What are the musical highlights of your life and did they relate directly to your mental health?

A. Going to see Kate Bush on the opening night of her first tour in 30-something years – that was possibly the greatest thing I’ve ever seen, particularly given the nightmare and confusion surrounding our bid to get tickets, which is a story I recall in Pop Life. In fact, it was a mixed bag health-wise. I was incredibly focused, upbeat and motivated in the weeks building up to the concert, but then was profoundly miserable in the few days that followed the show. It was like a weird form of grief, mourning the fact that the show was over and this singular moment of musical significance in my life had come and gone so quickly.

I think the lesson to draw from such experiences is that music can be therapeutic, it can be a great form of escapism, and it can transform one’s mood and mindset. However, at times I’ve placed too heavy a reliance on music to make up for shortcomings in my day-to-day mental state. This is clearly true of the Pop Life experience. When I began it, I was leaning very heavily on these gigs to hold my life together and keep me going. Fortunately I became a bit more self-aware, which has since served as a decent platform from which to work towards making day-to-day life more balanced.

Q. How do you feel you can help businesses support their staff who are facing mental health challenges?

A. As an author, that’s simple – I can try and tell my own story to the widest possible audience and help people better understand what it’s like working in a professional environment while facing ongoing mental health battles.

Speaking as an employer, it’s really important that businesses and business leaders are able to create an open and supportive working environment in which anyone struggling with a mental health challenge feels as though they can have an honest conversation about what they’re going through. And that means a conversation free from reprisal or judgement.

Clearly not every leader, director or manager suffers from these challenges themselves, but they can still show the same sort of empathy and consideration they would in the event of any sort of physical ailment being disclosed. If of course they DO suffer from these challenges, then I think there’s an onus on people like myself to lead by example and be open about what we’ve been through or are going through currently. It helps to normalise the conversation in the workplace, but it also helps to demonstrate that mental health challenges don’t need to be a barrier to professional progression.

In addition, as an author, I can use my work – and platforms such as this – to share the experience of my challenges with others.

Q. Do you feel UK businesses do enough to tackle mental health within their workforces?

A. We’re clearly in the midst of a fundamental change in the nature of our public discourse around mental health, and I do believe that as awareness and openness grows, we are seeing a change in terms of how businesses tackle mental health struggles when they occur, as well as some aspects of office culture and general work/life balance.

What I’m less certain about is the extent to which stigma around mental health in the workplace is being eroded. Employers are more accepting of challenges, should they occur, but I worry that some would still have reservations when considering promoting an individual with mental health challenges to a position of greater power or responsibility. Similarly, if two candidates go for the job, one with self-professed mental health challenges, to what extent does this count against them in the recruitment process?

Going forwards, this feels like a key business problem that needs to be overcome, because if employees still feel as though admitting to mental health challenges might count against them in some way, they’re simply going to carry on covering it up.

Q. Is the future looking bright for employees with mental health problems, or do we still have a long way to go?

A. The future is much brighter than it was when I began my career 15 years ago, and I’ve no doubt it’ll carry on improving as more people become comfortable with discussing mental health honestly and openly. That said, we still have a long way to go as a society in terms of better understanding mental health issues, why they occur, and how to support those who are suffering. And then there’s the biggest unanswered question of all, which is whether private enterprises that are relentlessly focused on delivering short-term shareholder returns can ever really create working environments in which mental wellbeing is top priority? Perhaps a broader shift in our culture and belief systems is needed before this type of change can be realised.

Q. We’d love to hear your top 5 happy songs of all time!

A. I’ve gone for songs that offer empathy, reassurance, defiance and purpose, as well as a small dose of giddy pop joy.

James – Sit Down

Kate Bush – Cloudbusting

Abba – Bang-A-Boomerang

Weezer – Pork & Beans

Prince – Pop Life