Mental wellbeing – especially during lockdown – has been a rising concern for many during the pandemic. Understandably, growing media interest has kept track. But if publishers are to add real value to people’s lives, says Toby Wiseman, Editor-in-chief of Men’s Health, they must ensure what they do is authentic.
“Mental health has been important to our magazine for quite a while and is now a central part of what we do,” he says. “But it’s taken time.”
When Wiseman became editor eleven years ago, the title’s focus was very much on abs, biceps and physical health. So, he set out to adjust the balance, convinced that physical and mental health are intrinsically linked.
“We started out with lots of big themed issues and event pieces. Slowly, it became less a particular focus in a specific issue. You have to break down barriers and shift perceptions and how you do that is with authenticity,” Wiseman explains.
“When people say we’re going to offer five tips to beat anxiety, well, that’s not the way mental health works. You can’t treat depression like a cold. It’s actually about discussing and normalising and empathising and humanising.”
Mental health has become a consensus issue – and that’s clearly a good thing, as it used to be slightly out there, or seen as not commercial, esoteric and arcane.
“But not pretending you have all the answers and allowing people to be open about how they feel – that’s the crucial thing,” he says.
“I try to be as frank as I can in my editor’s letters and introduce big pieces with a very clear stance. I’m not going to pretend I can fix your mental health, but I will create an environment in which people feel they can talk about it.”
In the last year, however – as a larger proportion of the public learned for themselves through first-hand experience how closely mental and physical health are linked – everything has moved up a level.
“The week before the first lockdown, I was in New York talking with old colleagues unsure how to cover coronavirus. It felt as though it would be a short-term thing and we’d let everyone else get on with that story while we did what we do,” Wiseman recalls.
“But then lockdown happened, and within days, it was clear that was what we should focus on – that with most people shut up and locked down, most people’s experience of Covid-19 was what was going on in their head and in their own body.”
He continues: “That’s the area that felt right to occupy. It felt like the time to reflect what was going on in the world more than ever, because health is so often see as an evergreen subject when actually it’s not. It’s immediate. It’s elemental.”
The Men’s Health team’s response was lots of digital content; lots of question-answering; more interaction, discussion and debate; and an emphasis on distinguishing between facts and fake information and putting people at ease.
“We used Instagram to great effect to offer people anything from live daily workout sessions to meditation – at one point, 20,000 people were doing these each day,” Wiseman says.
The team already had an eye on young 18 to 23 year-old men – a group whose mental health has been hit especially hard by lockdown, and created additional content to reflect their experience and help address their needs.
Then, following the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Wiseman made the decision to replace the Hollywood celebrity he had earmarked for the September cover with personal trainer Patrick Hutchinson, who was hailed a hero when he carried an anti-BLM protestor to safety during a protest against racism in London last June.
That issue went on to sell more on the newsstand than when the ousted ‘big name’ previously graced the magazine’s cover. In fact, throughout the year, the title grew – print subscriptions by 59% year-on-year, digital editions sales by 75% and web traffic up 55% to peak at six million monthly users.
“I felt passionately that Men’s Health had to not just serve as it had always done the individual, but also to really reflect the times we were living through,” Wiseman continues.
“It felt like we were experiencing a real coming together of mental and physical health issues, and we wanted to reframe health as a societal and cultural issue as well as an individual’s one.”
It felt like we were experiencing a real coming together of mental and physical health issues
The pandemic’s ‘liberating’ effect
This shift was, in part, a result of the pandemic being, in one sense, “liberating”.
“Like every manager, I found some people here found lockdown gave them better work life balance, with more time with the family, and they felt more productive and enjoyed life more while others clearly found it very difficult,” he explains.
“But a lot of work practices have improved.
“There’s been a certain sense of greater self-sufficiency, of people feeling empowered to self-start and pick the ball up and run with it so long as we’ve kept checking regularly to see that at a personal level, people are happy.”
It’s been liberating for the magazine, too.
“Over time, you come to adhere to rules and conventions you’ve learned or had passed on. But with experience can come conservatism. And to a certain extent, the past year has blown all that out of the water,” Wiseman notes.
“It enabled me and our brand to re-set our sense of purpose – perhaps to question our place in the market and, within reason, to remake our rules. It enabled us to push the envelope a little bit more and play with the parameters of how Men’s Health is perceived.”
And this is a good thing, he adds, as it will lead to lasting change.
“For many years, now, people have been trying to get their heads around different platforms and to be a multiplatform brand, and Covid-19 has accelerated the differences between different platforms,” he believes.
In the office, you are governed by geography - departments sit in certain areas, and that affects how people think.
“In a way, working remotely is a leveller and we’ve come out of those silos. Now more than ever, we consider idea first, then which platform will work best, then how best to chop an idea up to work differently across different platforms,” Wiseman concludes.
“It is enabling us to be more creative in the way we break a story.”
In a way, working remotely is a leveller and we’ve come out of those silos.
This interview featured in the 18 March edition of our weekly e-newsletter, InPubWeekly, which you can register to receive here.