Mental Health

Dressed for Success

Before I start, may I ask you for a moment of your time. If you have looked around you will know I am researching creativity and working on tools and systems to help people who have found themselves cut off from a creative life unlock their potential. The first step on that trail is to conduct several surveys, of which the first is now live. It will take 10  minutes and you should have a lot of fun. You can find it here. Thank you!

As you know, I have been reading Tim Harford’s wonderful book Messy this week. One of the chapters that induced prim air-punching was the chapter on work spaces. And yet, despite the fact he proclaims that what you have on your desk is none of anyone else’s damn business, the thing he fails to mention is the one thing that has held me back the most in my quest for “real” employment, and where I feel the greatest sense of relief and, almost literally, expanding brain capacity and all-around performance bandwidth the moment I enter “creative me” land. And that’s the subject of clothing.

Talking about poetry at Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival, able to give 100% of myself to what I am saying because I feel comfortable.

Talking about poetry at Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival, able to give 100% of myself to what I am saying because I feel comfortable.

These days, we’re familiar with the anecdotes about Steve Jobs and his black sweaters, or Mark Zuckerberg only ever wearing grey T shirts because that way he never has to think about what to wear. Sadly, we are also familiar with stories of outrageous sexist dress codes, of women being forced to mutilate their feet in the belief that it  is an essential part of doing their job.

The problem is the same one we see played out again and again in the confusing and arbitrary codes of the workplace. What we see in the powerful as quirk and eccentricity we see in the workers’ corpus as disobedient and disrespectful. One is lauded for breaking the rules, the other required to keep them if they want to keep their job. And by rules, I don’t mean maintaining customer confidentiality, billing in a timely and transparent fashion, or adhering to the finest tolerances in manufacturing. I mean working from home. I mean what you wear day to day. I mean whether you sit or stand at your desk. I mean what pictures you have on the wall.

I am intrigued to know if the things that apply to a tidy desk apply to our adherence to dress codes, namely that whether your desk is tidy or messy is not important, but whether you got to choose how it looks is. Because this is essential about autonomy, empowerment, freeing our mind for the important things and then putting us in a frame of mind where we can attack them with gusto, my intuition is that it is. And my intuition is that the reasons organisations cling to rules in the face of evidence are equally as strange.

Here I am talking to a room full of senior bankers at the launch of a policy document. Evidently the scruffy but fabulously comfortable cheap sweater rendered every seventh word in an unintelligible dialect of Esperanto.

Here I am talking to a room full of senior bankers at the launch of a policy document. Evidently the scruffy but fabulously comfortable cheap sweater rendered every seventh word in an unintelligible dialect of Esperanto.


Let me rewind and give some context. I have always struggled with clothes. And in many different ways. I wear clothes very hard, for one, so I tend to wear through things – seams will fall apart as soon as I put something on, fabric rub through, shoe soles crack and so on. Then there is hypersensitivity. The feel of some fabric, some cuts of clothing, some shapes of clothing causes me actual pain. And the claustrophobia from wearing clothing that clings in certain ways (strangely the opposite is true when running, when I guess my body recognises the need for compression and the need not to chafe) takes over my mind at every moment. Getting anything done requires me to find ways of functioning that work around the fact that this massive mental weight is constantly there. It goes without saying if I am wearing clothing that makes me feel like this I will not do as well as if I choose my own outfit. It got so bad with one retail job in a chain store that I had to leave the job because I literally couldn’t do anything other than try and survive with the suit I was given to wear. I have a fairly complex suite of mental health needs, which makes staying in full time work somewhat tricky – the full time work I am able to do is a long way from anything I am capable of or qualified for doing as a result. (Hence the need to stretch a brain that is on the one hand desperately impaired but on the other full of what appears to be an unusual set of abilities that constantly want to exercise themselves is met through my extramural life of mind sports, mental health campaigning, public speaking, writing and private research.) But even this limited job is extremely tough – not because of the work but because of the other things it puts my way – social interactions, being in shared spaces, the expectation of eating and drinking communally at some meetings. Each of these requires large parts of my brain I could otherwise give to my work.

And clothing is one more of those things. I don’t have to wear a suit, and I am very grateful for that. But I can’t wear the comfortable elasticated waist trousers I would wear by choice. Apparently that sends the wrong message.

And here’s where we get back to the general points about dressing for work, and why telling someone what to wear is absurd.

The people in charge know it’s a trade off. I have certainly told my bosses that. And the manager of a woman forced to wear heels that hurt her feet or a person of colour forced to unbraid their hair must know it makes work harder for them. So to do the same work as their colleagues will take more. So they are doing less for the organisation, and as individuals they are systematically being denied equal access to performance based promotion. I have certainly explained this, and you would have to be particularly blinkered not to see it. Yet the demand is still there. and that means one of two things:

  1. They believe this is a trade off that’s worth it. Because something is more important than their employees being A. happy and comfortable and B. at their most productive, efficient, and creative.
  2. They just don’t believe us. Sadly, I fear that this is still a massive problem. Especially for those of us with hidden disabilities. You only have to look at the news to see people with Crohn’s being harassed for using the disabled bathroom. And those who have not experienced sensory processing issues simply do not “get” how headphones to drown out conversational noise would help; or having a quiet space to go and eat would be anything but “being demanding”; or having flexible hours would mean you were able to be at work when you were not feeling sick from your medication. There is still too wide an assumption that those with hidden conditions are making up demands they don’t really need because people just won’t believe us. That really isn’t acceptable and we need to keep working to change it – but that’s for another post.

For now, I just want to think what those higher priorities might be, and I want to encourage all the managers out there to have a hard think about their logic if they find themselves drawn to any of them. I have come across each of these. I think each of them is highly flawed.

  1. It creates the wrong image for clients. I still haven’t understood exactly what this means. It seems to boil down to “clients expect”, but clients expect a lot of things that appear on a spectrum that runs from slightly dubious to downright unacceptable and it is the job of organisations to separate out delivering superb service from pandering to prejudicial or outdated attitudes. Arrogating responsibility for that is simply lazy.
  2. You work better when you’re dressed for the part. There are so many people who believe that the way they believe you work better at a tidy desk. The message is simple – you might think you work better one way, but you’re wrong. Some people feel this way. Others feel differently. There’s room for all.
  3. It sends the wrong image to co workers. I have seen this meant in several ways – on the one hand I’ve seen it mean it sends the message you don’t care – but for that see point 2. Personally I think giving someone the freedom to dress how they want shows you care about being the best you can more than you care about an image. I’ve seen it understood as meaning that managers who dress casually won’t be respected by their staff, or are sending an unmanagerly message. But see Zuckerberg and Jobs. Maybe it’s not that “tech companies are different” but that staff who work at Apple and Facebook care about their managers’ vision, leadership, and skills more than their clothes.

What I’m trying to say combines two elements, but they do meet to form a single point. Some people need the freedom to choose their clothing because they have a condition that requires it. But it’s never really the best way to do things to make people ask to be made an exception. It singles them out, it requires a lot of resources from the people who have fewest to spare, it formalises s sense that some people are a disproportionate burden. Fortunately, if what is true of desks is true of dress, there is an easy answer – let everyone have the autonomy to choose their own clothing. Those who like to feel smart can do so. Those who need comfort can have comfort. Those who simply need to feel they can express who they are can do just that. So long as no one is breaking health or hate rules, what is the problem?

One of the things I care about passionately is making workplaces more creative. And that also includes giving the opportunities to be creative to those who have had the doors closed. I also care about making workplaces as accessible as they can be. Because accessibility enables diversity and diversity in the workplace has been shown again and again to be good in itself. And because it’s in the interest of all organisations that when their staff are working they are able to bring their A-game. And I have this ridiculous notion that is more important than having them in a tie.


“Not for the likes of you”: How The Self-Improvement Industry is Failing People with Mental Ill Health

You are probably here because, among other reasons, you are, like me, ever so slightly obsessed by self-improvement books, articles, and videos. I devour self-improvement books, and I can usually pick up something from pretty much each one I read. But I also have a big problem. And with the self-improvement, how-to-succeed, be-a-successful-entrepreneur industry as a whole. A good half of what I read makes no sense to me. And that’s on a good day. On a bad day, it leaves me with a very simple message – success is not for you.

If I tell you that one in four people will share something with me this year, you will get an idea of what I mean. I have a mental health disability. Specifically, I have bipolar, though like many I have several co-morbid issues. Not all of the 1 in 4 who experience mental ill health every year will have a disability. A lot will, though. And that’s the thing. For a condition to constitute a disability in law, it has to have a long term impact on your day to day functioning.

Talking at the launch of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute's report "Seeing Through The Fog"

Talking at the launch of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute’s report “Seeing Through The Fog”

For those of us with mental health disabilities the impairments we experience are manifold, but a significant number of the areas where we struggle just so happen to be those areas where self-improvement books point us. And that’s a really big problem.

First, let me give some examples. A condition like autism can severely affect the ability to communicate. The up phase of bipolar can impair concentration and judgement while the down phase, like depression, can create an inertia that affects the ability to start tasks.

The problem should be becoming clear. These are problems “everybody has.” And they are things that get in most people’s way when they are trying to start a business or get an idea out of their head and into the world. And self-improvement books are really good at giving people ways to get around them. I am reading one now that begins by explaining the most essential step of all is developing a “do it now” mindset. Struggling with getting things done? Always distracted by what you have to do in the day ahead? Do it now!

Well yay, go you, slap me round the face and call me Tony I never thought of that one! The thing is, people I’ll call, for want of a better word (and I know it’s imperfect because only a small subset of conditions are neurological rather than, say, chemical) “neurotypical” use the same vocabulary as those of us who are disabled use. So it appears to everyone concerned that we have the same problems and, therefore, the same solutions.

on the panel for the same event

on the panel for the same event, at Barclays HQ in Canary Wharf

But we don’t. When someone who has depression talks about inertia, they don’t mean they’re “feeling tired”. They don’t mean they’d rather be sitting on the sofa. In fact, most people I know with depression would rather be out there changing the world. But they can’t. As in, they might as well be sitting with a 3 ton weight on their legs having every trace of caffeine that’s ever passed their lips slowly withdrawn from their physiological history. And when an autistic person says they can’t make a phone call, they don’t mean they “get nervous” or “would rather watch TV.” They mean if they pick up the receiver you might as well be screaming white noise at 120 decibels as talking their language.

So when we read the language we use of ourselves for our problems with the world, and see “handy hints” about how to overcome them, we take home one or more of the following messages

  • I am not trying hard enough. In fact the books, classes, videos are telling everyone that people with mental health disabilities aren’t trying hard enough.
  • Running your own business and being a success isn’t for the likes of you.

I used to challenge people regularly. I’d say “you do realise if you said that to someone with depression, it could be really damaging.” In fairness, once people had realised that a similar vocabulary can mask greatly differing realities (not everyone does – some will always prefer the “you’re not trying hard enough” explanation, or will unable to get their head round anything else even if they try), they would agree.

And then they’d say “but I wasn’t talking about people with depression.”

And that’s nice. They get it.

But, HANG ON A MINUTE. We’re back on message again. And that message is that being an entrepreneur, or a creative, or simply successful, isn’t for you if you have a mental health disability.

Which brings me full circle, because the book I was reading was something about “finding your big idea” and the rant it sent me off on made me realise that among other things to do with creativity and empowerment, my big idea is providing the tools for people who have those difficulties in life to achieve the things they dream of. By understanding exactly what the impairments and barriers they deal with are – and where I don’t understand directly, talking to people who do, so that as well as giving people the skills to be creative, which is mission number 1 here, I can give people the strategies to use that creativity fruitfully in the face of the obstacles they need to tackle.

Which means not telling you to “do it now” but being somewhat, er, more creative than that. The self-improvement industry is letting people down, and it’s letting organizations down. And that’s a challenge I want to pick up and run with.


  • Do you run a self-improvement business? What do you do for people who have mental health difficulties?
  • Do you experience difficulties because of mental ill health that make the advice you read seem as though it doesn’t work for you? What problems in particular?