Having a Nosey With: Zoë Hough, Founder of Anxiety Empire

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Having a Nosey with Zoë Hough

Interview by Georgia Gadsby

Tackling mental health awareness in the creative industry is Zoë Hough, founder of Anxiety Empire, a non-profit organisation working to raise awareness of mental health issues in creative workplaces. Anxiety Empire does this through giving talks and workshops to businesses while providing them with a variety of information about mental health and ways to give support to employees that suffer from mental health issues.

One thing, among many others, the company offers is a health and safety poster for mental health. This is a take on the official health and safety posters provided by the government, but rather than concerning physical health and safety they place an emphasis on mental health. Zoë and Anxiety Empire believes that having these posters visible in the workplace and making other small changes are large steps to raising awareness of mental health in creative workplaces.

We hope that business owners in the creative industry choose to enable better mental health for their employees because it is the right and decent thing to do. It is however also true that improving mental health makes good financial sense, as studies show it reduces absenteeism and staff turnover.
— Anxiety Empire

Today Zoë Hough sits down with us and discusses all things mental health and Anxiety Empire.

This is an excerpt from our interview. The full version will be available in our first print edition - click here to find out how to get your copy.

Zoë, Anxiety Empire is so important in terms of changing perceptions of mental health in the workplace. How did you come up with the concept?

I was working in an agency that was having a pretty negative effect on my mental health and I knew I wasn’t the only one suffering, but no one seemed to be able to talk about it or make any changes to improve the situation. I just thought I’d try to do something to change that, so I had the idea to set up a non-profit consultancy to help make workplaces more inclusive for people with mental health issues. I don’t think it’s that employers don’t want to create better environments and structures to support the mental health of their staff, I just think they often don’t have the time or knowledge as to what to do or where to begin.


Anxiety Empire focuses on raising awareness of mental health issues in the creative industries. Is there a reason that you chose the creative industry over other industries?

It’s the industry which I know as I’ve worked in advertising and design for a bunch of years. I used to work as an artist and many of my friends work in other sectors of the creative industry and it’s well-known for being a pretty stressful industry to work in. I also think it’s an industry where people at ‘the top’ do generally care about their employees; creativity still needs human brains, and human hearts (we haven’t, yet, been replaced by AI).


From an outsider's perspective it seems like a huge success. How is Anxiety Empire doing at the moment?

We’re still small, but I just enjoying doing it. I get to meet, online and offline, all sorts of interesting people who are experiencing, or have experienced, struggles with their mental health. Connecting and sharing in that way is pretty therapeutic for me and I think the knowledge of not being alone is important in helping people feel they can take steps towards recovery. Plus in the name of ‘research’ I get to read and watch all sorts of interesting things related to mental health, which I find an endlessly fascinating subject.

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Have you yourself or anyone you know experienced discrimination or hardship in the workplace relating to to mental health?

I’ve quit so many jobs in the past because of my mental health where quitting felt like the only way to get back to feeling ok. At that time I wasn’t talking about it with my employers so I didn’t give them the opportunity to help or to find out if they would have helped at all. When I began being open about my mental health the reaction was often surprise, but also generally accepting and supportive. I’ve been lucky as I know many people have much more difficult experiences.


We know that it’s hugely important to be open and honest about mental health but, through what you do with Anxiety Empire, do you think that people still struggle to speak about it?

Definitely. The stigma is real. For me personally it felt like a big deal the first time I spoke openly about it - if anyone’s interested to read about it they can do so here.


It must be really nice to be able to make a difference to people’s lives through your organisation. What is the best thing that has come out of Anxiety Empire so far?

I’ve spent years struggling with anxiety and depression and so just the fact that something is coming out of that experience, which other people find useful, is nice.


1 in 4 people struggle with mental health issues and Anxiety Empire is bringing awareness to this. Is there anything else that people in industry can do on a day to day basis to help?

The 1 in 4 statistic is useful, as it shows how common it is, but it’s also a bit misleading as 4 in 4 people have mental health and, just like we all have dips in our physical health, we all have dips in our mental health too. Plus, of course, physical and mental health are not separate entities, they are deeply intertwined.

As for what people can do on a daily basis, we’ve recently created a ‘Mental Health and Safety’ poster, which is free to download from our website, which lists ten things for both employers and employees that can help improve mental health in the workplace.

Anxiety Empire's Mental Health and Safety Poster. Available for download on their site.

Anxiety Empire's Mental Health and Safety Poster. Available for download on their site.

If you could speak to all creative industry leaders about mental health right now, what would
you say?

I’d just keep it simple: we know this is an issue, so let’s do what we can to improve things.

For the more cynical amongst them I’d also remind them that creating conditions that support better mental health is good for them too as it reduces absenteeism and staff turnover!


Anxiety Empire seems to be growing and growing. What are your hopes and plans for the organisation in the future?

The hope is that one day the stigma around mental health will be gone, and then there’ll be no need for Anxiety Empire. Until that day comes, I just hope to keep enjoying the process of doing it.

You can follow Anxiety Empire on Instagram here and visit their website here.